Officials say the City of Newburgh should be able to connect its main drinking water source to a new, state-funded carbon filtration system in February. That source is Washington Lake, where PFOS was found in 2016. The city now draws water from the Catskill Aqueduct. State environmental and health officials delivered an update during a Newburgh City Council meeting Monday night.
New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Deputy Commissioner of Remediation and Materials Management Martin Brand said testing of the state-of-the-art filtration system custom designed for Newburgh begins mid-month, with a return to Washington Lake water by February.
“We’ll be testing primarily for the PFOS and PFOA-type compounds that we’ve discovered in Lake Washington that were coming from the Air National Guard base, but we’ll also do extensive testing just to make sure we understand fully what contaminants are going into the treatment system and what are coming out,” says Brand. “We’ve done extensive testing in Lake Washington, and the only contaminants of concern right now are the PFOS compounds that we detected from the Air National Guard base. So we’re very confident that the system that we’ve built will handle the contamination, treat it properly and provide clean drinking water to the citizens of Newburgh.”
Tamsin Hollo is a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project.
“I appreciate that they’ve created a wonderful system. They themselves won’t actually know until they start testing the system later this month into February, and we’re looking forward to seeing those statistics,” says Hollo. “However, they are still cleaning dirty water.”
In August 2016, the state designated Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site, after finding the source of the PFOS contamination in Washington Lake was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. DEC, along with area federal lawmakers, continue to press the Department of Defense to take responsibility and pay for PFOS cleanup at the base. The state has found some of the highest concentrations of PFOS in outfalls from the base, at Recreation Pond. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper.
“Certainly we’ve been calling for almost two years for the cleanup of this pollution at its source,” says Shapley. “That’s got to happen. It’s infuriating that it has not happened yet.”
“I think the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation, they’ve done an amazing job in setting up this huge water treatment plant for us However, the pollution still has not been remediated,” Hollo says. “There’s a gate that closes off the source of pollution from the main holding area, but we don’t know how much of that pollution is going to be leaching into our aquifer in the future.”
And it’s a reason Newburgh City Councilmember Jonathan Jacobson does not want Washington Lake back online for drinking water.
“…we have to continue, and I think our damages, at minimum, should be hooking up forever to the New York City [Catskill] Aqueduct. I think that’s what it has to be because I don’t think…”
Kevindaryan Lujan is the newly-elected Orange County legislator representing Newburgh. He says drinking water safety was the number one issue he heard about on the campaign trail. Like Jacobson, he does not believe the city should hook up Washington Lake to the new filtration system. Plus, he says.
“I really, really believe that Newburgh for a city its size, 28,000 people, we really should be in control of our watershed. Unfortunately, that is not the case,” Lujan says. “We have a lot of construction, a lot of projects that are right along the watershed.”
Again, Riverkeeper’s Shapley.
“I think there’s every reason to be more confident today after hearing this presentation that the state really has multiple, redundant protections in place with this new filter that will be tested before it’s used,” Shapley says. “And we have a lot more confidence that the water that’s going to continue to be delivered to people’s taps is going to be just as clean as it is today.”
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health, which wrapped up Phase One of its PFOS blood testing program December 31, will return to Newburgh in a few years for Phase Two. State Health Department Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Public Health Brad Hutton says the second round of testing will be open to all.
“Well, I think there’s an important step in making sure that we come back to the residents of Newburgh and demonstrate to them that their blood levels are dropping,” Hutton says. “PFOS has a half-life, on average, of between 4-6 years, and so we need to be able to demonstrate to residents that not only have we successfully stopped contamination of the drinking water, but their blood levels are dropping accordingly.”
He says PFOS blood levels have dropped from a median of about 23 when the free blood testing began in November 2016, to a median of around 17. The national average is five.
“And what we’re now seeing is that individuals who participated in our blood-testing program more recently than at the start of the program, we’re already finding have levels of PFOS in their blood that are already lower, to the tune of 15-30 percent,” says Hutton.
He says more than 3,700 people have had PFOS blood testing. Meantime, Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino said there will be a public information session to further explain the new filtration system and hookup to Washington Lake. The session’s date has yet to be determined.