Blair Horner: Quality Drinking Water Must Top Albany’s Agenda

Feb 18, 2019

Voting reforms, civil justice changes, expansion of reproductive rights, state financial shortfalls, economic development strategies, all have dominated the recent discussions over the coming year’s New York budget. Yet one important issue has received too little attention: protecting New York’s drinking water supplies.

Drinking water is one of New York’s most important resources. But as a result of climate change, outdated water infrastructure, and New York’s toxic chemical legacy, this precious natural resource is in peril. From harmful algal blooms growing worse due to warming waters, to the drinking water contamination crises on parts of Long Island, in Newburgh, Hoosick Falls, and elsewhere, New York must adopt aggressive policies to ensure water is protected for all.

According to a recent analysis of government data, the drinking water of over 2.8 million New Yorkers has levels of 1,4-dioxane that are above the most stringent levels recommended for safety. This is also the case for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) for over 1.4 million New Yorkers. And that’s only for communities that have conducted testing – many haven’t had to test their water yet.

PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.  Studies find that exposure to 1,4-dioxane can cause liver cancer and chronic kidney and liver effects.

If PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane had been regulated years ago, communities may not have had to face the pollution problems they are currently contending with. Unfortunately, too often steps to protect water aren’t taken until after a water contamination crisis has already unfolded.

This is a vicious cycle that the public is counting on New York to break.  New Yorkers can’t wait for people to get sick from exposure to dangerous chemicals to take action.

Thankfully, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council in December of last year recommended Maximum Contaminant Levels (or MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4 dioxane. 

MCLs are legally enforceable drinking water standards, and they are essential to prevent exposure to dangerous chemicals found in water supplies. While recommendations were made last December, as yet no regulations to implement those standards have been issued.  It is now up to the Department of Health to adopt MCLs that will protect the most sensitive populations and begin statewide testing immediately.

Last week, EPA made clear it isn’t going to set drinking water standards for these chemicals for some time. The longer New York doesn’t have standards for MCLs on the books, the longer, and greater the chances, people get exposed to unsafe levels of these chemicals.

New York lawmakers began the 2019 legislative session in January, but when it comes to drinking water, there’s still a lot left to do.  The governor has proposed $2.5 billion in strengthening state drinking water infrastructure, but only allocated $500 million for this year. Water infrastructure needs alone are huge in New York state – it’s been estimated that over the next 20 years, New York will need to invest $80 billion to make all the needed repairs, upgrades, and replacements – and that doesn’t include the costs associated with treating chemicals like PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.  $500 million – while needed – is just a drop in the bucket. More state support will be needed.

In addition, there is much more to do than simply spending money (although that is needed).  One key step would be to expand regulation of contaminants already found in drinking water.  There are over 80,000 chemicals on the market that are unregulated, which means that even though they may not be safe for public health, they can be in our products or water anyway. PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane are only the start. New York must test for unregulated chemicals, set MCLs and ban the use of chemicals that pose health risks.

The public has the basic right and expectation that the water from their taps will be safe to drink. As the federal government rolls back environmental protections, protecting water and health must be at the top of the policymaking agenda in 2019.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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