“NEWBURGH, N.Y. ― Lately, Wayne Vradenburgh daydreams about a demotion.
Vradenburgh has spent his entire career working for the water department of Newburgh, an upstate New York city of 28,000 people, most of whom are Hispanic or black. He started as an assistant water maintenance mechanic at 18, repairing fire hydrants. Two decades later, in 2016, he took the top job of superintendent. He made plans to fix leaky pipes, and mostly just aspired to keep things running smoothly for the poverty-stricken city of dilapidated brownstones nestled on the Hudson River.
Then, a mere two weeks after he took over, state health officials pulled up in his driveway. They had grim news. Lake Washington, the 1.3 billion-gallon reservoir that had served the city since the 1880s, had tested positive for a dangerous chemical. Vradenburgh soon found himself frantically studying the names of tongue-twister chemicals he’d never heard of, going head-to-head with state and federal agencies, and working 70-hour weeks overseeing $50 million in emergency projects…
The contamination started back in 1990 when the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base, home to the 105th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, spilled 4,000 gallons of fire-fighting foam into a stream that flows directly into Lake Washington. That foam contained perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, an invisible, flavorless industrial chemical that clings to water molecules. PFOS has been linked to cancer, thyroid problems and chronic kidney disease, and can accelerate puberty, delay mammary gland development, lower sperm count and raise cholesterol.
The Pentagon has continued to use the foam, discharging it into pools near the airbase. Even now, the Department of Defense has only put some restrictions on its use as it researches an alternative. Even if they had stopped, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies the chemical as “extremely persistent,” meaning it takes many years to naturally degrade…
New York already had a PFOA contamination crisis underway when Newburgh’s situation came to light. In late 2015, Hoosick Falls, a sleepy former mill town about two-and-a-half hours north of Newburgh, discovered dangerously high levels of PFOA in its water. As parallels emerged between Hoosick Falls and the lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ― keen to avoid the national criticism Michigan’s leaders received ― decided in January 2016 to make New York the first state to regulate PFOA as a hazardous substance. The state added PFOS to the list of hazardous chemicals in April 2016, a first step to setting limits on maximum allowable levels.
Those moves awoke Newburgh to its own chemical crisis. Samples taken from Lake Washington in 2014 contained PFOS levels of up to 243 parts per trillion. In Silver Stream, they were as high as 286 parts per trillion. In drainage pools at the air base, that figure climbed to 5,900 parts per trillion. Near the airstrip, contamination levels skyrocketed as high as 1.9 million parts per trillion. Recognizing the urgency of the problem, the EPA in May 2016 issued a new health advisory lowering the health risk threshold to 70 parts per trillion.
That prompted Newburgh to declare a state of emergency, which temporarily banned filling swimming pools and watering lawns. The city stopped drawing water from Lake Washington and switched over to the Catskills Reservoir, the highly regulated source of New York City’s water. In August 2016, the Cuomo administration designated the air base a state Superfund site, giving the state authority to petition the Department of Defense to clean up the contamination.
The state has nearly completed construction on a new water treatment plant that will filter out PFOS. But officials in Newburgh say they don’t just want the PFOS cleaned from their water ― they want the toxic chemicals removed at the source. State health officials say the Department of Defense hasn’t moved to do so, despite getting $25 million in the defense spending bill last year for PFOS and PFOA remediation.
But Newburgh’s elected officials say the state should be doing more, too. And late last month, it announced plans to sue the state, the Department of Defense, several other federal agencies and two private companies for contaminating the water in the first place.
The lawsuits aim to force the Cuomo administration to take radical steps to change the way the state manages its watersheds, taking authority away from cities, towns and villages and putting it in the hands of the state Department of Health. That would require the governor to push for new regulatory powers from a Republican-controlled legislature to take on the military and big corporate polluters, officials say.”
Read the lengthy, full article by Alexander Kaufman.