Water Contamination Meeting in Newburgh Erupts as Residents Want Their Say
NEWBURGH—Federal, state, and local officials spoke for more than an hour in Newburgh on Sept. 19 before Newburgh residents demanded a promised Q&A session get underway. Residents attended the public meeting at Mount Saint Mary College to hear updates on the chemical contamination in the city’s reservoir, Washington Lake, followed by a period for questions from the public.
The panel of experts discussed the status of the city’s public drinking water supply and associated health risks from contamination by Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), a chemical with links to cancer.
Frustrated residents interrupted Dr. Nathan Graber, director of the state Center for Environmental Health, to ask about blood testing.
“Time for questions,” they yelled midway through his presentation. “We want to know when, where, and how the blood testing is going to take place.”
In his letter to the state’s health Commissioner, Howard Zucker, Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino said he hoped at this meeting that he or Graber would “lay out in detail your plans and your timetable for implementing a biological monitoring and health assessment program to determine the health impact, if any, on those who have been drinking our water.”
Before the hearing, residents were allowed to sign up for blood testing, and many wanted to hear how the testing would be conducted.
Graber said there were many options and the testing process is very complicated as something of this scale has not been done before. A PFOS blood test is highly specialized, not one that a doctor’s office can conduct, he said. There is only one lab in the state that can do the analysis.
Both he and Ciaravino said this might be a prototype for contamination testing nationally.
Graber said the Center for Environmental Health will soon launch a bio-monitoring program, which includes blood testing, and collects information on risk factors associated with exposure to residents.
The meeting started with Newburgh Mayor Judy Kennedy’s kudos to Ciaravino, who has written several letters to high-level officials to get the problem of PFOS contamination addressed. “We have had a city manager as tenacious as any bulldog to stay on top of this issue,” Kennedy said.
Ciaravino said the good news is that the city has clean water for perhaps the first time in decades after the city switched over to using New York City’s water supplies. In a letter dated Sept. 12 Ciaravino said to Zucker, “We now have reason to believe that PFOS may have been present in the Lake for the last 25 years.”
As a temporary measure, the city first switched its water supply, which mainly came from Washington Lake, to Brown Pond, then the Catskill Aqueduct because of the pond’s falling water levels. “Brown pond was falling so low that it was starting to damage the aquaculture in the pond,” Ciaravino said.
He held up a large red funnel to explain how Washington Lake became contaminated. Stewart Air National Guard base, where the PFOS contamination from firefighting foam is believed to have come from, is the highest point at an elevation of 150 ft. Ciaravino said Newburgh, New Windsor, and Washington Lake are at the base of the funnel. “Whatever goes on inside this funnel comes downhill,” he said.
George Heitzman a project manager with the DEC’s Division of Environmental Remediation, showed a graph that showed several places with high concentrations of PFOS at the base.
The worst area was the scene of two releases of foam in 1998 during fires in base hangars, he said. The foam is a base that needs water and a concentrate of PFOS added to it. The hangar fires led to a direct release of the concentrate.
Heitzman said that the two billion gallons of water in Washington Lake has under 3 1/2 pounds of the contaminant, which is equivalent to 170 parts per trillion units. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a health advisory that no more than 70 parts per trillion is safe for long-term exposure. The state is also concerned there is more still up at the air base that can contaminate Washington Lake.
Martin Brand, deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management for the state DEC, said the state will also conduct tests this fall on fish in the lake. On Sept. 7 the New York Department of Health (DOH) began sampling private wells in New Windsor that are near Stewart Air National Guard base, Graber said.
The law firm of Weitz and Luxenberg, which is investigating the use the carcinogenic chemicals used in firefighting foam on military bases, released a statement that it has filed a class action lawsuit against six producers of the foam.
Angus Fire, 3M, The Ansul Company, Buckeye Fire Protection Company, Chemguard, and National Foam are named in the suit. The complaint alleges the residents in communities surrounding the base were exposed to high levels of the chemicals for decades without their knowledge, the firm said in a statement.
The manager of the investigation stated that the primary source of contamination comes from a retention pond, the Stewart Eastern Airfield Drain, which tests revealed as having a high level of carcinogenic PFOS at 5,900 parts per trillion.
The DEC declared Stewart Air National Guard Base a State Superfund site in August. A temporary treatment plant has been installed so some of the water can be drained out of Washington Lake to avoid overflow at the dam. At the meeting, Brand said the plant should begin operation on Sept. 20.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Aug. 16 to assist the DOH in providing blood tests for city residents. Gillibrand said people exposed to the toxic chemical would need bio-monitoring.
Residents who want to participate in the bio-monitoring program should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 518-402-7950.
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