U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer announced earlier this week that the U.S. Department of Defense would begin taking water samples for PFOS around Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh. He and other officials say it’s a step forward but far-off from what they want to see happen. So New York state will take the lead.
Schumer says the sampling came at his urging, after numerous calls for action and an appeal directly to Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In May, Schumer was in New Windsor, accusing the Department of Defense and Air Force of using every trick in the book to avoid paying for the cleanup of PFOS contamination that came to light in 2016.
“You know what our parents taught us — You make a mess, you clean up the mess,” Schumer says. “DoD, USAF, you made the mess, now you clean it up and stop playing games that kick the can down the road.”
And while the PFOS water sampling in and around the base is a big step forward, he says DoD must clean up the full PFOS mess it created. Martin Brand is deputy commissioner for Remediation and Materials Management with the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The sampling effort that the Department of Defense started this week is a small step in the right direction but this minimal effort falls short of the comprehensive investigation we have demanded and for which DoD is responsible,” says Brand. “DEC will closely monitor DoD’s actions as their sampling advances and hold them accountable for quickly cleaning up the Air National Guard base.”
An Air Force spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. PFOS contamination in Newburgh’s main drinking water source, Washington Lake, was discovered in May 2016. In August 2016, New York state declared Stewart Air National Guard Base a Superfund site. The state has found some of the highest concentrations of PFOS in outfalls from the base, at Recreation Pond. These outfalls drain into Silver Stream and other tributaries to Washington Lake. And while the state is funding a permanent carbon filtration system for Washington Lake, the issue of filtering water from the outfalls remains. Again, Brand.
“In the meantime, the state is not waiting for DoD to act, and we continue to undertake our own investigations at Recreation Pond and throughout the watershed to develop and design a system to capture and treat any discharges,” Brand says. “In addition, installation of the new granular activated carbon filtration system for the City of Newburgh is on schedule to be completed in October and will be fully operational by early December after sampling and testing of the system occurs.”
Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper. He weighs in on word the DoD has begun water sampling around the base.
“Well, this sounds like progress but, unfortunately, it really is more evidence that the Department of Defense is stalling because the sampling that it is doing is largely duplicative of what the state of New York has already done,” says Shapley.
He, Schumer and others had been pressing DoD for months to rely upon the state data in the interest of moving forward with remediation. Shapley says from the state data, necessary actions are clear.
“And chiefly among them is the action we’ve been calling for since May 2016, which is to stop the flow of pollution from the Air National Guard base. Riverkeeper has called for that. The State of New York has called for it; the City of Newburgh has called for it; the city’s representatives in Albany and Washington have called for it. The people of Newburgh have taken to the streets to demand and to beg the Department of Defense to take this action,” Shapley says. “The Department of Defense continues to fail in its mission to protect the people of Newburgh and the people of the United States.”
Earlier in September, Schumer, a Democrat, announced he was successful in including provisions to the National Defense Authorization Act to authorize $20 million in funds for the Air Force to remediate PFOS contamination at Stewart Air National Guard Base and to ensure that the Air Force has the authority to mitigate and clean up National Guard and Reserve installations.