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Dr. Marcus Martinez, physician who helped expose Hoosick Falls pollution, dies at 51

Dr. Marcus Martinez
Image provided to WAMC
Dr. Marcus Martinez

A beloved community member and key voice in exposing the harmful contamination of water supplies in Hoosick Falls, New York has died.

Dr. Marcus Martinez, a local physician, health advocate, and leader in the fight against carcinogenic PFOA pollution in Hoosick Falls, died of cancer.

Village Mayor Rob Allen shared the news late Thursday night.

“People outside of our community know Dr. Martinez for his incredibly important involvement in the early PFOA response. However, the majority of the community know him for his work ethic, his caring nature, and his incredible abilities as a doctor, and as a friend, and community member,” said Allen.

Martinez was instrumental in exposing pollution he suspected had a role in sickening residents of the Rensselaer County community.

Michael Hickey worked with Martinez to test and present information on contaminated water to local officials in 2014, after Hickey’s father died of a rare form of cancer.

In a January 2016 interview with WAMC, Hickey recalled approaching Martinez, his primary care doctor.

“So he kind of obliged my requests in the beginning to go through the paperwork and look at the studies as his father was a doctor in Hoosick Falls for 40 years prior so they really had a good history of knowing the problems that Hoosick Falls experienced over the years,” said Hickey.

Hickey and Martinez paid for their own water sample testing for contaminants – at a cost of $450 each. Hickey said at the time, Martinez was fighting a recently diagnosed case of cancer, and resigned his seat on the Hoosick town board.

“We kind of talked through the process. It was unfortunate when he got diagnosed in October, it kind of slowed our push down a little bit, for obvious reasons. But we still knew that there was a big issue. So we had a few more meetings with the mayor. And we went to the next two board meetings even when he was going through chemo,” said Hickey.

Allen, a local school teacher who before being elected mayor in 2017 became a regular voice at village board meetings – often with data and maps in hand – says Martinez put himself at risk to expose the truth about the contamination.

“He was willing to put his reputation and, in a sense, career on the line to bring that message out there. And it was a very precarious position for him to be in. Because there was a lot of things he could and couldn't say. But at the end of the day, his decision making was always in favor of what was best for the community,” said Allen.

Martinez along with Hickey and others formed the group Healthy Hoosick Water LLC to advocate for clean water, a year before EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck appeared in Hoosick Falls in January 2016 to publicly warn residents not to drink the water tainted with the unregulated chemical pollution.

Despite the first detections of PFOA by Hickey and Martinez in 2014, and later by the village after a request for testing to the state health department was denied, it wasn’t until 2016 that state agencies confirmed PFOA in the village water supply and declared a state Superfund.

Enck said she, like Martinez, risked political ramifications for speaking out instead of waiting for the slow wheels of government to turn, and said she deeply appreciated being in touch with the local doctor.

“I had to navigate some really complex politics with the former governor. And Dr. Martinez was just such a staunch supporter and, you know, always would speak truth to power and had the best intention of his community at heart,” said Enck.

Loreen Hackett, a Hoosick Falls breast cancer survivor and advocate for environmental justice, said it was Martinez’s insight and special attention to the health needs of the community that benefited her and her family.

“Had it not been for Marcus, I wouldn't have found the lumps on my thyroid that now have to be monitored. I mean, who would have, you know, that's not a test that you get yearly? Right? If it wasn't for Marcus…when my granddaughter who was diagnosed with a thyroid disease at five months old, so to make all these connections, Marcus, going above and beyond to read about the health effects to guide us in the decisions that we made about our health care thereafter…eternally grateful, again, is an understatement,” said Hackett.

Flags are at half-staff today in Hoosick Falls for Dr. Martinez, who was 51.

Since the contamination's discovery, several steps have been taken to hold companies linked to the pollution accountable.

This May, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced it reached a $45 million agreement with Saint-Gobain and Honeywell to implement a new water supply for the Rensselaer County village.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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