Clean-water advocates met at the Board of Education Auditorium over the weekend to discuss the next steps in an effort to spur the U.S. Department of Defense into action to stop the flow of PFOS entering the City of Newburgh drinking watershed.
“The Department of Defense must stop the flow of PFOS and other contaminants from Stewart Air National Guard Base,” said Riverkeeper Chief of Staff Deborah Brown. “This must occur as soon as possible…. before Newburgh resumes drawing its water from Washington Lake.”
Brown outlined several clear and specific action steps at a meeting of the Newburgh Clean Water Project on Saturday. “Stop the release of PFOS into Recreation Pond,” said Brown, writing the sentence down with a black sharpie on a white sheet of paper. “We need a filtration system at Recreation Pond.”
The pond – found with 84 times the advisory level set by the EPA last year for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in drinking water – is the main entry point of PFOS flowing into the city’s drinking watershed from the air base.
The Catskill Aqueduct
The discussion addressed the impending shutdown of the Catskill Aqueduct, the city’s current source of drinking water. The city was forced to switch to using aqueduct water following the discovery of PFOS at Washington Lake in the spring last year. The lake serves as the city’s primary drinking-water reservoir.
Recreation Pond must be remediated before the city switches back to Washington Lake water, Brown insisted. “We’re not going back on (lake) water until this has taken place,” she said. The pond’s PFOS-tainted water flows directly into Silver Stream, which flowed into the lake through diversion gates under the intersection of routes 207 and 300.
(The temporary closure of the Catskill Aqueduct has been pushed back to early 2018, city Water Superintendent Wayne Vradenburgh confirmed on Monday. The closure was previously scheduled to take place in October. Vradenburgh said a new filtration system designed to remove PFOS and other contaminants from water flowing through the city water filtration plant would be up and running before the new closure date.)
Sampling by the state Department of Environmental Conservation last year revealed PFOS contamination throughout the watershed. The source of the contamination was quickly determined to be the air base, where PFOS-laden fire foam had been used for years in drills and fires.
The DoD has yet to take responsibility for the contamination, nor has it announced plans for remediation at the base or within the watershed. The federal agency stated it would carry out its own investigation of contamination at the base over the summer, but has yet to disclose results.
Threats throughout watershed
The problem extends way beyond the air base, said Quassaick Creek Watershed member Peter Smith, citing potential threats from runoff, road spills, new construction, capped landfills and low-lying areas of Route 300, a stone’s throw away from the lake. “Part of the problem we face is that our drinking watershed is outside the city’s boundaries,” said Smith.
“Lake Washington is in both the Town of New Windsor and the Town of Newburgh,” he said. “These towns have no obligation in their planning and zoning to accommodate the City of Newburgh,” thanks to the state’s “home-rule” law, Smith said.
Dense development within the watershed comes within feet of streams and tributaries feeding Washington Lake, Smith said, noting a bevy of big-box stores and distribution centers in the area.
The New York State Thruway 87 also runs directly through the watershed, Smith pointed out, and so would the Pilgrim Pipeline, if approved and constructed. “There are endless vulnerabilities to contaminants and emergencies,” Smith said.
A PowerPoint presentation mapped out the details of the watershed: Washington Lake was at the center; Patton Brook was seen north of the lake and Silver Stream was visible to the south.
Though it eventually makes its way into the lake, the upper Patton Brook is not listed as “source drinking water” by the state Department of Health, Smith said.
The slideshow revealed that west of the lake, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was issued a State Pollution Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit to discharge into Silver Stream, which was, until recently, categorized as a non-drinking water source by the DEC.
This detail may have contributed significantly to the PFOS contamination that took place at the lake, Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino said at City Hall in July. “If it had been properly designated as a Class-A stream, some of the discharge practices may not have been allowed to occur,” he charged.
Smith outlined several specific actions to be taken by the state in order to safeguard the watershed: accurate identification of watershed source waters such as Silver Stream, requiring developers consider the “safety of the public’s drinking water” for project approvals, and forming a state-level authority to regulate land use in municipal watersheds.
City Councilwoman Karen Mejia urged residents to stay vigilant and continue to pressure lawmakers and state and federal agencies to take action. “We have to, collectively, not lose steam,” Mejia said.
By SHANTAL RILEY