Officials from the Department of Defense will be in Newburgh next week. They will visit Stewart Air National Guard base and then hold a public forum about the PFOS water contamination emanating from the base.
It will be the second visit from senior-level DoD officials since Newburgh’s PFOS water contamination came to light in the city’s main drinking water source — Washington Lake — in May 2016. Two officials visited Newburgh for a closed-door meeting followed by a public forum in November 2018. This second visit will be April 18 after officials committed to a follow-up public meeting. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force John Henderson and Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, Director of the Air National Guard, will address the public at 6 p.m. and then take questions. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says the Newburgh visits are due to his urging.
“I got them to come,” says Schumer.
And he expects the two officials to speak to the following.
“A plan for how much money they’re going to put in, under what schedule, and when the people of Newburgh can drink their own water again,” Schumer says.
In December, the Senate Minority Leader announced that DoD had committed to implementing an interim, remedial measure at a major source of PFOS contamination — outfalls at Stewart Air National Guard Base, at Recreation Pond. It’s the site of some of the highest PFOS concentrations found to date. Testing had shown that one of the outfalls discharging storm water into Rec Pond contained 5,900 parts per trillion PFOS, almost 85 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion. And just recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on behalf of the Air National Guard, allocated $2.4 million in federal funding to install a filtration system at Rec Pond, which the Air Force expects to be online by the end of the summer. Schumer believes the funding goes beyond a temporary solution and that DoD officials will speak to the public about this.
“That’s the planning for a permanent solution, planning money and setup the design for a permanent solution,” Schumer says. “Now they’re going to bring it to the community.”
What they’ve also brought to the community are some promised answers to questions, answers they told the public in November would be ready in 30 days. Riverkeeper Water Quality Program Director Dan Shapley came across them in the past week on the Orange County government web site.
“There are a lot of key questions such as, how clean is clean when we’re talking about a cleanup, and who’s responsible ultimately and who will pay,” Shapley says. “Some of these really important questions the Department of Defense didn’t answer. So it will be interesting to hear maybe more nuance than the blank space that they’ve provided so far, on what their thinking is on those questions at this upcoming public forum.”
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. State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Erica Ringewald says the state has been a constant presence in the Newburgh community since contamination was discovered in 2016.
“And we have continually pressed the federal government to act and clean up their mess,” Ringewald says. “In the absence of needed federal action, New York continues to ensure aggressive actions are being taken to protect the residents of Newburgh and we’re not leaving until the job is done.”
Newburgh has been drawing its water from the Catskill Aqueduct since 2016, and using the city’s backup water supply Brown’s Pond when the Aqueduct is offline for repairs. In 2018, DEC designed and built a floating barge and pumping station for Brown's Pond to help the city provide high-quality water during the Catskill Aqueduct shutdown in the fall of 2018.
In 2017, DEC and the state Department of Transportation performed an investigation to collect data to design an interim remedial measure for the continuing discharge from Recreation Pond. The DEC’s Ringewald responds to the Army Corps’/Air Force’s intent to update the community on plans to build a filtration system at Rec Pond.
“DEC eagerly awaits further details and a timeline for implementation of the much-needed filtration system announced recently, which will begin the process of restoring this watershed and reducing contamination levels in Lake Washington,” says Ringewald. “DEC has not received detailed engineering plans for this project.”
Riverkeeper’s Shapley hopes DoD officials offer details on the filtration system.
“For instance, the size of the system, its ability to handle high volumes of water and what volumes of water it can handle will be really important because it’s essentially treating runoff off of a huge air base, so a lot of pavement,” Shapley says. “So the runoff happens all at once when it rains. So the system will have to be designed to handle that.”
Plus, he says:
“Also, a key question is to what standard will the water be clean?” Shapley says. “So who’s setting the limit and what is the limit on how much, if any, can come out the other end of the filtration system.”
Doors open for the community forum April 18 at 5 at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center with information tables set up, followed by officials’ update to the public at 6.