Water contamination in an upstate New York village has brought officials’ handling of early information under scrutiny.
Just as lead in the water in Flint, Michigan took over a year to gain widespread attention, Hoosick Falls’ battle with a synthetic contaminant has been quietly unfolding largely outside the public eye since late 2014. Despite cleanup efforts, recent testing suggests that the crisis is not over.
The village, with a population of 3,500, has been battling elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the municipal water supply — an “emerging contaminant” that poses “potential adverse effects for the environment and human health,” according to the EPA.
The contaminant has also been linked to a number of diseases, including kidney and testicular cancer. Michael Hickey, a resident who brought concerns about PFOA to the village board and mayor, began researching the link between the chemical and cancer after his own father died unexpectedly of kidney cancer.
The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) is now investigating the possibility of elevated cancer rates in the village. The state is also investigating the potential spread of contaminants to nearby towns.
But despite efforts to mitigate the contamination, elevated — in some cases increased — PFOA levels have still been detected in recent months and questions remain as to how so many months were allowed to pass before officials warned the public against drinking the water.
‘We don’t know how long you have been drinking contaminated water’
In late 2014, village officials, tipped off by Hickey, tested water samples and found that 1 of the the 3 tested had a concentration of PFOA above the EPA’s provisional guideline of 400 parts per trillion (ppt).
In statements to media and letters to residents, village officials stressed that the EPA’s provisional health advisory for PFOA did not set an “enforceable standard” for safe drinking water levels and that the town was in compliance with what relevant regulation did exist.
Some state officials, for their part, say that they were not made aware of the situation as early as the village claims. The village website’s timeline of events was still being corrected, according to Hoosick Falls Mayor David Borge, during the reporting of this story.
In any case, citing the test results, the NYSDOH told village officials that the PFOA concentration in Hoosick Falls’ public water “does not constitute an immediate health hazard.” At the time, the state grouped PFOA with other “unspecified organic contaminants,” which meant that up to 50,000 ppt was considered acceptable in water, 125 times the level advised by the EPA.
Nearly a year later, in December 2015, the EPA issued its own public notice explicitly recommending residents not drink the water in Hoosick Falls. A letter weeks earlier from the EPA to Borge cited new June test results obtained by the NYSDOH which found PFOA levels above 600 ppt in public water.
EPA spokesperson Mary Mears claims that the EPA did not receive the June test results until the agency reached out to the NYSDOH in the fall.
Judith Enck, the EPA regional administrator who wrote the agency’s letter to Borge, was only made aware of the Hoosick Falls situation in October when an attorney representing concerned citizens reached out to her, the Albany Times Union reported. At a town meeting, Enck apologised to residents:
“I’m sorry that we don’t know how long you have been drinking contaminated water,” Enck said. “No medical studies or surveys have been done in Hoosick Falls. Action should be taken to protect your health.”
Hoosick Falls Mayor David Borge claimed that the village was first informed of the June test results over the phone in August. He referred Business Insider to NYSDOH officials for details on the distribution of the department’s June results, but state officials have not yet provided comment to Business Insider.
Borge noted that the EPA’s November 2015 letter — its first recommendation against drinking the water — contradicted the earlier information provided by the NYSDOH.
“Since first learning about this issue in August 2014, officials from the Village of Hoosick Falls have pursued two goals: ensuring a clean, safe water supply for our residents and identifying the source or sources of PFOA in local groundwater so it can be cleaned up,” Borge said by email.
Hickey is hesitant to place blame on single party — including Borge — for the delayed recommendation to avoid the water, citing instead the lack of cooperation between the various agencies involved. But he did seem shocked at the NYSDOH’s response to the information they were supplied with.
“It seems like [the NYSDOH] just wanted to go the easy way out and stand behind the maximum of 50,000 ppt,” Hickey told Business Insider. He said that the department seemed not to know what to do with an unregulated contaminant, but called the initial response “pure laziness.”
Saint-Gobain, a construction materials company, and Honeywell have been named formally responsible for the contamination. Water samples near the Saint-Gobain’s Hoosick Falls Plant, though not in the public water supply, had been shown to have PFOA concentration as high as 18,000 ppt. Honeywell previously owned the site of the plant.
Saint-Gobain has agreed to fund bottled water until a permanent replacement is installed. It will also fund filters installed in the existing water treatment system.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, moreover, made an emergency classification of PFOA as a hazardous substance in order to unlock funding for water filtration systems, free water sample tests, free blood tests, and additional planning for a “possible alternate water supply.”
Since the contamination looks to have spread to private wells and nearby areas, Hickey isn’t optimistic about new water sources: “I think it’s probably going to be a longer process.”
The state DEC says it has made “significant progress” in the search for new water sources.
In January, the EPA issued a new statement, indicating that private well owners who have not tested their water or else found their water to test above
100 ppt — not 400 — should stick to bottled water for drinking and cooking. This time, Mayor Borge and the state health department have expressed agreement with the EPA.
“I want to caution residents that the EPA’s recommendation to refrain from using the municipal water for drinking and cooking still remains in effect,” Borge was quoted as saying. “It will likely take another few weeks for NYSDOH to conduct a rigorous sampling program to ensure the carbon filtration system is effectively removing PFOA from the water.”
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