The federal government has told Newburgh that it will not reimburse the city for expenses incurred from PFAS contamination emanating from Stewart Air National Guard base. The interim city manager says the response is unacceptable. Meantime, the area around the base is one of eight communities selected for a government PFAS study.
Interim Newburgh City Manager Joseph Donat says the city had filed a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act in April 2018 requesting that the federal government pay for the city’s expenses and other damages resulting from the PFAS contamination of Newburgh’s former water supply, Washington Lake.
“The Department of Defense and Air Force, I have to say that the City of Newburgh is disappointed in their response. All we want to do is protect our residents and get reimbursed for all the expenses involved in this matter,” Donat says. “There’s no doubt that Stewart Air National Guard base is a source of the contamination in Washington Lake, and it is our hope to continue to move forward and supply our residents with a watershed that’s cleaned up and suitable for use.”
In a letter dated January 29, 2019 from Department of the Air Force, the city was advised that its claim for damages was denied.
“I anticipate that the city will amend its complaint to incorporate additional claims against the defendants. And we’re in the process of assembling that as we speak,” says Donat. “And I’m sure that more information will be available in that regard moving forward.”
The letter from the Air Force says the city’s lawsuit against the federal government was filed in September, thus ending administrative adjudication resulting in the denial of the claim. 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.
Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, whose 18th District includes Newburgh, says in a statement, “The City of Newburgh didn’t contaminate its own water supply. Its citizens shouldn’t have to pay to clean up a mess they didn’t make. The federal government contaminated the water and they have the responsibility to pay for remediation.” Maloney also says that he helped work to include millions of dollars in funding to pay for remediation efforts in last year’s defense bill, and that funding should be directed to places like Newburgh.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry announced that they have identified eight communities to be part of PFAS exposure assessments. The communities are near current or former military installations and one of the eight communities included is the area near Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh. In Massachusetts, Hampden County near Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield is another of the eight selected. Participants selected randomly in these communities will have their PFAS levels checked via blood and urine samples. Dan Shapley is Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program Director.
“So on its face, this sounds good. We’ve been wanting to see Newburgh get the attention of federal health officials for these kind of health follow-up studies,” Shapley says. “Unfortunately, it looks like this study is not going to provide residents with what they really want to know, which is what does the exposure mean to my health. It’s going to, in some way, shape or form, tell people that they have been exposed but fall short of that next step, and that’s really what people have been wanting to know.”
An ATSDR spokesperson says the exposure assessments are part of a larger, multi-pronged approach to better understand and address PFAS exposure across the country, including in the Newburgh area. CDC/ATSDR will stagger the exposure assessments and anticipate the first one will begin this year and the others will follow through 2020. The larger multi-site health study is intended to learn more about the relationship between PFAS exposure and health outcomes among differing populations and will use the lessons learned from the exposure assessments. The sites for the multi-site health study are not yet identified.
Meantime, a spokesman says the New York state Department of Health is committed to conducting a second phase of blood testing in Newburgh, following the first phase completed in December 2017.