The New York state-funded water filtration system intended to alleviate the PFOS water woes in Newburgh has been up and running for some time, but not for its originally intended purpose.
The state funded a $25 million GAC, or granular-activated carbon, filtration system for Newburgh, following the revelation in 2016 that the city’s main drinking water source — Washington Lake — was contaminated with PFOS. Yet as the state readied testing of the system in early 2018, local elected officials and community activists grew wary. State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos.
“Well the plant’s operational,” says Seggos. “We are still working with the city to make sure that it gets online.”
The city has been drawing its drinking water from the Catskill Aqueduct except when the Aqueduct is offline for repairs, as was the case recently. Then Newburgh’s drinking water comes from Brown’s Pond, and Seggos says the GAC system filters water from there. Meantime, city councilor Ramona Monteverde says she’s still waiting for a DEC response to questions about the filtration system and PFAS chemicals posed in a letter a few years ago.
“Dead silence, that’s all we’ve gotten,” Monteverde says. “So, it would be great to have a sit-down and for them to respond to that letter, and to get some answers.”
Democratic state Senator James Skoufis, whose 39th District includes Newburgh, describes the situation as frustrating.
“I’ve been working with the governor’s office, DOH, DEC. It’s my understanding that the city council sent a number of concerns and questions in writing to the state — this is actually a number of years ago — and never got a response. And that’s really one of the lynchpins to this standoff is they sent all these inquiries up to the state and haven’t heard back, so, of course, we’re going to continue being concerned,” Skoufis says. “So I’ve been pushing, and I believe we’re going to be getting a formal set of answers to those questions from the city council in the near future. And, at that point, I hope that we can all begin to have a conversation about what the best way forward is.”
“I’ve been acting as a sort of intermediary to try and push the state,” Skoufis says. “And I think we’ve gotten them to a point where they’re actually about to send something back to the city council.”
A spokeswoman says DEC is finalizing its response to the city with the information it is seeking and in the meantime continues to pay for New York City water for the community as part of DEC’s ongoing response efforts. She adds that the agency continues to work closely with the Newburgh community, keeping residents apprised of DEC efforts, ensuring they continue to have clean drinking water, and addressing contamination related to the Stewart Air National Guard Base.
Newburgh city officials and area residents are not convinced the system could handle PFAS chemicals beyond PFOA and PFOS, though DEC officials have repeatedly said the system can filter both short- and long-chain perflourinated chemicals. Monteverde believes otherwise:
“The issue is if we were ever to go back and they do do the remediation and clean out Washington Lake, that that system, I believe, can’t detect the, what is it, short-chain PFAS,” Monteverde says. “That’s an issue.”
State Senator Skoufis:
“We need to rely on science,” says Skoufis. “If the science and any testing demonstrates that that filtration plant is safe, then I think we need to have a conversation about that.”
“And our goal right now is to continue working with the administration, the local administration, on this to ensure that they understand how committed the state is to producing clean water for the residents of Newburgh. We’re confident in the system that we have built. We know that it can more than remove the chemical of concern, which is PFOS. And we’re working to ensure that the federal government is doing what it needs to do to keep more PFOS from getting into the system. I know they’ve made some investments in treatment at Rec Pond to keep stuff flowing off the site,” Seggos says. “But generally, I would say that I am glad they installed that system. I’m frustrated with the pace of their commitment, the scope of their commitment being narrowed and, while we’ve made these incredible investments for the benefit of the community, I’m surprised that it’s taken the federal government so long to come around, at this point.”
The Army Corps of Engineers has installed a temporary filtration system that is up and running at the Recreation Pond outflow at Stewart Air National Guard Base, from where some of the highest concentrations of PFOS emanate.