The sound of the whistle was loud and shrill, cutting through traffic noise like a sharp knife. “DoD, we’re blowing the whistle on you,” she shouted through a bullhorn.
City of Newburgh Councilwoman Genie Abrams stood in front of tanks attached to a large carbon-filtration system next to Washington Lake, where a rally was staged Saturday in an effort to get the U.S. Department of Defense to clean up Stewart Air National Guard Base. State testing shows the air base is the source of ongoing PFOS contamination of the City of Newburgh drinking watershed.
“Water is not a luxury,” Abrams railed. “It’s a right.”
The demonstration took place more than a year following the discovery of perfluorooctane sulfonate in City of Newburgh drinking water. Testing by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation determined the chemical entered the city’s drinking water reservoir at Washington Lake through Silver Stream, which was, in turn, contaminated by PFOS-laden water flowing from the air base.
Two, four, six, eight, DoD remediate!” rallygoers chanted. They held signs that read “Dept. of Defense keep PFOS out of our water,” “Say NO to PFOS from Stewart ANG Base,” and “Honk for clean water.”
The honking was almost non-stop during the rally. “Water is something that all of us need,” said King of Kings Lutheran Church Pastor Mary Lou Baumgartner, who was joined by about 50 others at the demonstration.
“I was tested for PFOS and my numbers are high,” said city resident Linda Schuyler, who participated in the state-sponsored blood testing program for the Newburgh region. “I think I’ll be gone before it will be out of my system.”
Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance Chairman John Gebhards explained that Recreation Pond – a storm-water retention pond next to the air base, found to have very high levels of PFOS last year – flows directly into Silver Stream. The stream flows past Washington Lake and into the Moodna Creek, which flows into the Hudson River.
“Silver Stream, for over 100 years, has been critical to Washington Lake,” said Gebhards. “As long as the DoD allows polluted water from Recreation Pond and other sources into Silver Stream, we can’t use it,” he said. “We must get back to where Silver Stream is in its natural state.”
The state has spent millions of dollars on the cleanup so far, said state Assemblyman Frank Skartados. Earlier this year, Skartados added, the state announced $2.5 billion in funding for improvements to drinking- and clean-water infrastructure, and water-quality protections across the state.
“You break something, you fix it,” thundered Skartados. “The DoD has a responsibility to make the state whole.”
At the onset of the water crisis last year, the DEC took immediate steps to assist the city in securing a new drinking-water source and install a filtration system to clean PFOS from Washington Lake. The state later conducted a regionwide blood testing program and is currently helping to complete a major overhaul of the city’s water filtration plant. To date, the DoD has taken no known remedial action related to the contamination of the watershed.
If the DoD refuses to compensate the state for the work it has performed and paid for, legal steps must be taken, Skartados said. “If we have to bring the DoD to court, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
In May this year, the DEC’s Martin Brand said the DoD would carry out its own investigation of perfluorinated-chemical contamination at the air base this summer.
Meanwhile, the city is up against a hard deadline in the fall when the Catskill Aqueduct, its current source of drinking water, is shut down for repairs. “The water flowing into Silver Stream must be clean at that time,” said Riverkeeper’s Director of Community Engagement Sarah Womer.
The DoD can use a similar filtration system at the air base as the one next to Washington Lake, said Womer. “We know the technology exists to filter the water,” she said, pointing to the water tanks behind her.
In addition to cleaning up the contamination at and coming from the base, a long-term control plan for the protection of the Newburgh drinking water supply is needed, she said. “We have a big fight still ahead of us,” Womer said.
To comment on the Newburgh water crisis, contact the U.S. Department of Defense Public Affairs Office at 703-571-3343 or write to U.S. Department of Defense, 1400 Defense Pentagon Washington, D.C. 20301; for U.S. Air Force public inquiries, call 703-697-3039.
By SHANTAL RILEY