Read the full article by Tara Guaimano & Kenneth Guillaume (Marist Circle)
“In May 2016, toxic chemicals known as PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) were found to have contaminated Newburgh’s primary drinking water reservoir, Lake Washington.
‘We didn’t know what it was,’ said Shantal Riley, a reporter at Vice. ‘There wasn’t much information out there.’
In January 2020, Vice published an article titled, ‘The New York Water Crisis That Nobody’s Talking About,‘ concerning the Newburgh water crisis. It compared Newburgh to Flint, Michigan, calling it an ‘old industrial city,’ where water crises had been in limbo for years.
Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey told Riley that he was primarily concerned for the city’s residents. ‘For them to drag their feet and take their time when humans are dealing with this contamination in their bodies day after day is a tragedy,’ he said.
Riley worked as a reporter for the Mid-Hudson Times, a small Newburgh-based paper, in May 2016 when the community first heard rumblings of the water contamination. ‘Then the city made an announcement that there was this chemical — PFOS — in the drinking water,’ she told the Marist Circle.
‘They said the city would have to switch to an alternative water source,’ Riley said.
PFOS presented a new and unprecedented threat to the Newburgh community. “We didn’t know anything about it at the time, no one had ever heard of it,” Riley said.
PFOS is one of thousands of chemicals in the PFAS family, found in anything from non-stick cookware, and clothing to fire foam.
They don’t break down in the environment, and because of this — they’ve been nicknamed ‘forever chemicals.’ The effects of PFAS’s can be linked to liver disease, cancer and other diseases — PFAS chemicals are dangerous to human health.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation conducted testing and determined that the PFAS came from Stewart Air National Guard Base.
‘Slowly but surely, we started finding out about PFOS, and, sure enough, we found out that it is toxic, and there was PFAS contamination of drinking water systems all across the country — around the world, in fact,’ Riley said.
PFAS water contamination at military sites stems mostly from the use of AFFF fire foam. After decades of fire foam use at Stewart Air Base, the chemicals made their way into the City of Newburgh’s water supply.
In November 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers installed a $2.4 million system to filter the discharges from the Stewart Air Base. The water flowing off the base is no longer directly contaminating Washington Lake, which until May 2016 had been Newburgh’s primary drinking water supply.
‘People began to call it an environmental injustice,’ Riley said. ‘Some people have equated it with poverty and a lack of attention to communities of color.”
Air pollution in minority areas of the US has taken disproportionate effect on communities of color, especially in children of color.
In 2015, African-American children had a death rate ten times that of non-Hispanic white children, and Black children are four times more likely than non-Hispanic white children to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
In Flint, lead was the source of water contamination. Lead is regulated on the federal level, while PFAS is not.
‘You could argue that Flint, Michigan, did get a lot of attention — but part of the reason why it got the attention that it did is because lead is regulated on a federal level,’ Riley said.
‘The lack of federal regulation for PFAS makes it difficult for people to understand the seriousness of the problem,’ Riley said.
For the larger Hudson Valley community, the Newburgh water crisis brings attention to the topic of water quality. ‘We live in an area where there are many old industrial facilities that are aging, breaking down and releasing all kinds of contaminants into the environment,’ Riley said. ‘Newburgh is by no means the only community with aging infrastructure — it’s not the only community with toxic substances in the soil and water.’
According to Dr. Richard Feldman, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Marist College, although the high levels of PFAS/PFOS are not beyond the Newburgh water supply in the Hudson Valley and we do not consume their water, there is “every reason to assume that lower levels of these chemicals are ubiquitous.”
In terms of the Hudson Valley community being able to help the situation, Feldman calls the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 “one of the great environmental legislative disappointments of my adult life.”
‘It is one more factor to consider for overall health of a population,’ Feldman said. ‘For PFAS, it is yet another factor in the milieu of carcinogens to which we are exposed.’
For the larger Hudson Valley community, the Newburgh water crisis brings attention to the topic of water quality. Despite surges of entrepreneurs and creatives from New York City moving to the city in the past few years, the contamination has had a negative effect on the economy.
This may have happened nearly four years back, but the effects of the water contamination have remained at the forefront of residents’ concerns.
‘Perhaps there is state legislation being developed or that can be strengthened to better safeguard water supplies, in ways that federal legislation can not,’ Feldman said.
However Newburgh isn’t the only region in the Hudson Valley concerned with the potential of ‘forever chemicals.’
As of May 2018, seven municipalities in the Hudson Valley organized to protect the drinking water sourced from the Hudson River. The Town of Esopus, Town of Hyde Park, Town of Lloyd, Town and City of Poughkeepsie and the Town and Village of Rhinebeck organized under the name ‘Hudson 7.’
Under these seven municipalities are more than 100,000 residents who rely on the Hudson River for drinking water. The Intermunicipal Agreement is vital in protecting efforts to obtain and provide initiatives to support longevity of drinking water in the Hudson Valley.
The idea stemmed from Mayor Gary Bassett of the Village of Rhinebeck, and the re-elected chair of Hudson 7, formulating the idea on the banks of the Hudson River in 2017 with Dan Shapley of Riverkeeper, and the goal is to protect local drinking water.
‘So if we got our water from the river, we want to do everything we can have the highest grade quality water that we can get. It also has a mission of inner-linking these municipalities together to start as a cooperative, where they can start working together and sharing ideas,’ Mayor Bassett said.
PCBs aren’t only contained in Newburgh, almost 40 miles of the Hudson River is exposed to the chemicals and members of the Hudson 7 and Riverkeeper are speaking to hold the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and GE, the source of the contamination accountable…”