Senior level officials from the Department of Defense were in Newburgh Thursday, where they held a public forum on the PFOS water contamination. It was the first time since the crisis took hold more than two years ago that DoD officials met publicly with residents, who say they were hoping for more concrete action.
PFOS contamination was found in Newburgh’s main drinking water source — Washington Lake — in 2016. That August, 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. Some of the highest concentrations of PFOS emanate from outfalls at the base. Robert McMahon is assistant secretary of defense for sustainment. He’d been on the job three weeks before touching down in Newburgh November 15 to listen to the community’s concerns.
“We expected to, many of the questions that we heard today we expected to hear. The concern and the frustration we expected to hear,” McMahon said. “Could we have done a better job communicating? We always can do a better job communicating. And I think that reinforced for all of us how important it is to engage with the community, to talk with the community and, most importantly, to give the community a voice back to us, which is why this Restoration Advisory Board is so important to us.”
McMahon says the community will decide the makeup of the board and how often it meets. McMahon says such boards generally meet monthly, with DoD officials participating at least twice a year. McMahon was in Newburgh with Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy John Henderson. They toured the base in the morning, then held a closed-door meeting with a number of local officials, including Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino. In August the city filed a federal lawsuit against a number of parties, including the Air Force, to stop PFOS contamination of the city’s water supply.
“There was some discussion about litigation, especially as a boundary from getting into greater details. And the Department of Defense is well aware of the city’s action as is the state of New York,” says Ciaravino. “We were very surprised that the state Environmental Conservation… the New York state DEC, as well as the New York Department of Health, was not in the room, was not at the meeting.”
A Stewart Air National Guard spokeswoman says the state DEC and DOH were invited to the closed-door session at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, hosted by Orange County. DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald:
“The state Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health were not invited to attend the closed door meeting held by the Department of Defense and the Air Force, but state representatives attended the DoD's public meeting to hear their plans to clean up their mess,” says Ringewald. “New York continues to demand that the DoD step up and commit to concrete actions to address PFOS contamination from the Stewart Air National Guard Base.”
Invites weren’t the only source of contention. The public forum that followed the closed-door session was held in the afternoon, and several chairs sat empty. Many of those who did attend said they’d just heard about the forum a day or two earlier, and by word of mouth. An Air Force spokesman says the last-minute trip occurred because McMahon felt it was important to visit Newburgh, and the visit worked well with a scheduled trip to a base in New Jersey. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper.
“I think that this would have been an absolutely perfect meeting 2 ½ years ago,” says Shapley. “And they have now a very high level of skepticism that they need to get over with this community and with us and everyone involved because they’ve been absent.”
Shapley says the formation of a Restoration Advisory Board, along with the visit from high-level officials, is positive, but the test will be what actions follow.
“What we did still hear, dismayingly, was excuses about bureaucracy, coming to agreements with different landowners and agencies to take action,” Shapley says. “That’s not what we need to hear now. We need to hear, on this date we’re going to take action.”
Meantime, McMahon says his department is working through CERCLA to address PFOS contamination. CERCLA stands for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known as Superfund.
“There have been challenges with Stewart because of the fact that it’s an Air National Guard base, that it is under different authorities than our active duty bases, which has made this even more complicated,” McMahon says. “So wanted to come up here and ensure that the community knew, first of all, that we understood and that this is a long-term effort on our part. We wanted to hear what some of those concerns were but also communicate that we’re with them for the long haul.”
He says the challenge is that the Defense Department has authority to resolve environmental issues on active duty bases, which are bases funded from federal dollars.
“So our job is to continue to work with the Congress,” McMahon says. “And we’ve had great luck in 2019 to get some limited authorities but we need a much larger extensive authority to be able to get to where we need to be to help our National Guard bases in the same way that we can resolve issues on our federal bases.”
Democratic Assemblyman and state Senator-elect James Skoufis was in the closed-door meeting. He left the meeting believing there is a commitment to better communicate with residents and local officials.
“We need justice here,” Skoufis says. “And part of that is remediation and part of it certainly is financial compensation for the damage that they did.”
Skoufis says he also found out about the meeting just a few days earlier and understands the frustration of short notice and a meeting held during the day, when many residents are unable to attend.
“Moving forward, I’m going to do my best to make sure that they’re held accountable to evening meetings or a weekend meeting,” says Skoufis.
New York U.S. Senator Charles Schumer says the meeting was scheduled after he met with the Air Force secretary. Manna Jo Greene is environmental action director with Clearwater. She says the day was a breakthrough in terms of meeting face-to-face with the assistant secretaries, but hopes action is not years into the future. Greene presented petitions to McMahon during the public forum, ones she has held onto since June.
“What I presented was over 1,500 signatures that we collected back at the Great Hudson River Revival calling for the Department of Defense to develop a remediation plan and expedite its implementation,” Greene says.
Ophra Wolf is a city resident and member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project.
“This is the first time that they’ve showed up in 2 ½ years and they’ve told us nothing new,” Wolf says. “They haven’t come with a plan for remediation. They haven’t come with any clear steps forward. Really, basically, what we heard from them is that they’re having a hard time getting along with agencies in order to move things forward.”
In June, New York state sued six manufacturers of hazardous firefighting foam that contained PFOA and/or PFOS. The lawsuit alleges that the foams used at military and civilian airports caused widespread contamination, as in the case of Newburgh.