Two senior level Department of Defense officials were in Newburgh Thursday to update the public about their efforts to address PFOS water contamination emanating from Stewart Air National Guard base. The forum followed the DoD’s visit to Newburgh in November, when it first addressed the community about the PFOS contamination uncovered in May 2016.
Assistant Secretary of the Air Force John Henderson, who also visited Newburgh in November, and Director of the Air National Guard Lieutenant General L. Scott Rice mainly took questions from the public at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center. Here’s Rice:
“Well, this is, this is good because, on one side, we felt the passion and enthusiasm from the community, and we actually had some technical things that we can work on,” Rice says. “The biggest rock for me is communication.”
For example, answers to community questions from November were recently posted on the Orange County government website, and few even knew they were there, including some Newburgh city council members. Meantime, on the ground, Henderson says a new development since November is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is designing a carbon filtration system, with $2.4 million in federal funding, at the Recreation Pond outflow at the base, from where some of the highest concentrations of PFOS emanate.
“That filter will be in place while we do the rest of the assessment and determine what the final solution is. And then, and then it maybe, maybe that’s replaced with a permanent filter or maybe it’s replaced with a whole different technology. Maybe we can stop the flow out of those pipes altogether and there’ll be no need for a filter. That would be our goal,” says Henderson. “And so, but that filter will be there as long as we need it to be while we come up with a permanent, long-term solution with CERCLA.”
CERCLA stands for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as Superfund. In August 2016, New York state designated Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site, after finding the source of PFOS contamination was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. Democratic state Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson wanted DoD to answer to one of his concerns.
“I want to make sure that they clean up the entire base, not just a little portion, not just the portion that they run now,” Jacobson says. “They’re responsible for the entire Stewart Airport area because it was an Air Force base that they operate, they operated the entire base before the Port Authority took over part of it, before there was an active commercial airport.”
Henderson responded that the Air Force is committed to addressing contamination attributed to Air Force activities, including at bases now closed and turned over to other entities. Earlier in the day, the officials held a closed-door meeting at the base, with local Congressional staffers and city officials, including Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey.
“These are some of the first steps and efforts and communication with the city government on what they’re going to do as the Department of Defense, as the United States Air Force and the [Air] National Guard,” says Harvey.
“So was that the first time you heard, ‘yes, we’re taking responsibility’ behind closed doors today?” asks Dunne.
“Yes, it has,” says Harvey. “It’s the first time for me.”
“That’s what I thought,” says Dunne. “I just want to clarify.”
“Absolutely, yeah. And I think that’s important for the public to know,” Harvey says. “This is the first time.”
Air Force Assistant Secretary Henderson says his branch should do a better job of communication with state and local officials, and the community.
“From a policy perspective, the Air Force is absolutely committed to cleaning up the contaminants that we were responsible for putting there. And we own that responsibility; we own that problem; and we’re committed,” says Henderson. “And actually we’re required by law to go back and clean those up, so absolutely there’s some responsibility there.”
Ophra Wolf is a city resident and member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project.
“Them saying that they’re taking responsibility is really them saying that they will stick around until the issue is treated fully. That’s the way that I understand it. And we’re hearing that and it’s on public record,” Wolf says. “And so we’ll have to continue to hold them to that, that until that base is completely remediated from the ground, not just from runoff water, and until the community’s been cared for, the community that’s been affected, they’re not done. And they’ve given us that commitment tonight so we’re going to hold them to it.”
“This is a good start, a great beginning to a long-term process,” Harvey says.
He notes that, in general, there has been progress despite ongoing litigation from the city. Plus, Henderson says the military is still investigating contamination sites and potential release locations. Newburgh resident Marianne Marichal.
“Do what you say, say what you do or don’t say anything at all. I hear a lot of people saying a lot of things, but I don’t see them doing it. It took them 2 ½ years to show up. That’s action happening a little too late,” Marichal says. “So now, and they’re now, they’re even putting off putting together our community group. Really? We’re here now. We want to have the discussion now. So that’s what makes me mad, makes me mad and angry, and I hear the same rhetoric.”
The community group to which she refers is a Restoration Advisory Board, which DoD officials spoke about in November and said could soon be put together. Henderson notes the Board is not a military or government entity. Several area residents took the DoD to task for what they said was a lack of communication and helping to get the Restoration Advisory Board under way. While better attended than the last-minute forum in November, held in the middle of the day, there still were a number of empty seats.