City Manager Michael Ciaravino spoke at a forum on the Newburgh water crisis, co-hosted by the New York State Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation at the city Activity Center on Monday night. The event was attended by about 150 people wanting to learn more about the state of the city’s drinking water.
“Are we switching over to Washington Lake and what are the consequences for that?” he asked. “Do we stay where we’re at on the Catskills and what does that look like for the city?”
The city manager spoke about the new, state-of-the-art, granular-activated carbon (GAC) filtration system, recently constructed at the city’s water treatment plant on Little Britain Road. Paid for by the state, the system was designed to remove perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) from city water contaminated by discharges from the Stewart Air National Guard Base.
In 2016, the city’s drinking-water reservoir at Washington Lake was found to be contaminated by PFOS flowing from the air base, where PFOS-laden fire foam was used for decades. The city is currently supplied with water from the Catskill Aqueduct, also paid for by the state. The city is due to switch back to the lake water sometime this spring.
“If we do switch over to Washington Lake, we will quickly draw down that water, unless we open the diversion gates and accept the water upstream from Silver Stream,” said Ciaravino. The stream supplies approximately two-thirds of the lake water and Patton Brook supplies the other third, he said.
Silver Stream is fed by Recreation Pond. Located next to the air base, in 2016, the pond tested with PFOS levels of 5,900 parts per trillion, more than 84 times the current lifetime health advisory level for PFOS set by the EPA.
“This new system is designed to treat contaminants we found in Washington Lake,” said Martin Brand, deputy commissioner of remediation and materials management at the DEC, including PFOS and other perfluorinated chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
DOH Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Brad Hutton said the GAC system is “possibly largest in the nation,” capable of handling almost 9 million gallons of water per day. The system will be rigorously tested beginning early March, he said, and results will be shared with the public. “That testing will continue,” Hutton said.
The system is expected to treat the lake water until PFOS is “non-detect,” said. “That switch won’t be thrown until we get all the results back,” Brand said.
Lake vs. aqueduct
Ciaravino said he and other city officials are “extremely skeptical of the water,” despite pledges by the state. “We have retained a consultant,” he said, to review the entire process.
“I think Washington Lake should only be a backup when the Catskill Aqueduct is unavailable,” said city Councilman Jonathan Jacobson. “When we hook up to Washington Lake, I could see the state and the (Department of Defense) washing their hands.”
Ciaravino warned the city could end up having to foot the bill for aqueduct water, “if at some point the state DEC deems water is safe for consumption, and we, for whatever reasons, we had technical disagreements… it is within the purview of the State of New York to stop reimbursing us for the Catskill Aqueduct water, for which we would pay a very high premium.”
“We’re not going away,” Brand insisted. “We’re working on a comprehensive agreement in which the state will continue to operate the system… obviously we want the DoD to pay for it, but until that happens, we aren’t going away.”
The aqueduct is more than 100 years old and in dire need of repair, Hutton said. “It’s not an option for the City of Newburgh to just rely upon aqueduct water,” Hutton asserted.
In fact, the aqueduct is scheduled to be shut down for two to three months later this year to carry out needed repairs, Hutton said. “I won’t be surprised if it has to be taken down for longer,” he said. Brown’s Pond, one of the city’s backup water sources, has a water supply that will last about 30 days, he added.
“Are you holding Stewart accountable?” asked city senior Erol McDoe, who expressed indignation over the DoD’s pollution of the drinking watershed. “We have to pay for it, the taxpayers.”
“From August, 2016, we’ve made demands of the DoD,” said Brand. Despite state test results clearly showing the source of the chemical is the Stewart air base, the federal agency has yet to take any responsibility. “They’ve done some recent investigation in the area,” Brand said, but, so far, they have not performed any cleanup. The state will continue to push the DoD to the next step, “to design a fix,” Brand said.
Other residents voiced their anger at a lack of information on the human-health effects of PFOS. “Why does my (13)-year-old nephew have a thyroid problem?” asked Melinda Ware. “We took a test that has no answers.”
“Unlike cholesterol…. we don’t have a treatment to remove PFOS,” said Hutton. “The state of the science is such that we know the range of levels that are (concerning),” he said, but not much beyond that.
Considered “emerging contaminants,” PFOS and PFOA were banned from production in the U.S. in 2000. “The entire nation was exposed to these chemicals,” said Hutton, through products such as pizza boxes and popcorn bags. “When we look at blood levels tested in the nation in 1999-2000, they were actually elevated to the level of Newburgh’s,” he said. “We’ve seen a pretty dramatic reduction in the levels (since).”
Ciaravino highlighted information from the EPA reporting results from studies involving animals and occupational exposure in humans that revealed a connection between high levels of PFOS exposure and certain diseases.
“These studies indicate that exposure for certain levels can result in adverse effects including developmental effects on the fetus during pregnancy, and to breast-fed infants including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations, cancer such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer, liver effects…” he said, as well as effects on the thyroid.
The chemicals remain unregulated at the federal level. Hutton pointed to the recent news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct a five-year study into the human-health effects of exposure to PFOS and PFOA. A total of $7 million in federal funding was devoted to the study through the Investing in Testing Act, part of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December.
Some good news
More positive news has come with results from a state-sponsored blood testing program measuring PFOS levels of Newburgh area residents. “The major exposure has been through drinking water,” DOH research scientist Jim Bowers told a small group who participated in a one-on-one question session that evening.
But, people could have also ingested PFOS through water used for cooking, he said. “When the City of Newburgh switched to the Catskill Aqueduct, people were no longer exposed to this contamination,” he said. “We’ve seen a definite drop.”
Bowers pointed to a chart showing the average PFOS blood level of a current city resident had dropped to 17.3 micrograms per liter from about 20 in the first round of blood tests. “People’s kidneys have started to catch up,” he said. “People are eliminating the chemical more than they are taking it in.”
Bowers said the DOH would return to Newburgh to conduct another round of testing in two years. In the meantime, the state will continue to address the ongoing pollution coming from Recreation Pond, Brand said. “We’ve been up there this fall,” he said. “The (Department of Transportation) and the DEC have been working at Rec Pond, taking samples, looking at flow rates, looking at design parameters in order to design a system that is going to cut those discharges off.”
“We’re going to go back to the DoD and give them that information and say, ‘Here, again, we’ve done the work for you, we expect you to step up and move forward.’ We’re going to continue to do that.”
He continued. “We’re not going to be happy with this system until we fully demonstrate it works and fully demonstrate that, at the other end, we have clean water, free of PFOS. That’s the point.”
Editor’s Note: Mid Hudson Times Publisher Carl Aiello is among the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed on behalf of residents exposed to the chemical PFOS.
By SHANTAL RILEY