Lawmakers skeptical of explanation for Hoosick Falls water crisis

For the second time in two weeks, New York state Department of Health officials sought to blame the
Hoosick Falls, New York in May 2011.
Hoosick Falls, New York in May 2011.

For the second time in two weeks, New York state Department of Health officials sought to blame the Environmental Protection Agency for a contaminated water crisis in upstate New York, saying on Wednesday that they were confused and hamstrung by changing federal standards on perfluorooctanoic acid, a toxic chemical known as PFOA.

But again and again, lawmakers at a joint legislative hearing seemed deeply skeptical of the state’s explanations about what happened in Hoosick Falls, a riverside hamlet where PFOA has been found in dangerously high levels.

“There’s a nice game going on where you’re going to blame the EPA,” said Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents the village. “I don’t think that the members up here are quite buying the fact the DOH holds no responsibility for this.”

[Hearings on Hoosick Falls tainted water begin]

It was a local resident, Michael Hickey, who first raised alarms about PFOA in the public water supply in the summer of 2014. It took nearly a year and a half for state officials to warn residents to not drink the water, acting only after the EPA — the very entity that the state now blames for the crisis — had issued such a warning.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has repeatedly defended the state’s response to the crisis in Hoosick Falls. Nonetheless, the response was the subject of a hearing last week in the village’s high school, where speakers included Hickey, who spoke passionately about the death of his father from kidney cancer, which has been linked in studies to PFOA. (PFOA is used in the creation of Teflon, a common component of products once made in the village.)

The testimony on Wednesday was less emotional, but more contentious, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle sharply questioned Dr. Howard Zucker, the health commissioner, for several hours.

“Would you acknowledge that in this particular community that the general public does not seem to have been adequately informed?” Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, asked.

Zucker said he believed that the state had informed residents, via village and county officials. A formal warning about not drinking the water, however, did not come until December.

Such answers did not please environmental groups.

“When it comes to PFOA, Dr. Zucker failed to abide by the precautionary principle,” said Peter M. Iwanowicz, the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “He appears to have set aside his physician hat for a regulator’s.” Iwanowicz added that Zucker’s claim that the science is evolving on PFOA is “baffling,” noting a major 2012 study that established several health impacts from the chemical, including cancer.

[Angry over tainted water, Hoosick Falls residents push Albany to act]

The hearing came the same day as the EPA proposed adding the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant — identified by the state as the source of the PFOA — to the federal Superfund list, reserved for the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites. Such a move, which comes after the state made a similar declaration in January, could unlock funds for long-term cleanup of the site, where Teflon was in use.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement citing its own “ongoing and aggressive response” to the Hoosick Falls water, and saying that the EPA was “finally acting” on a January response for federal Superfund consideration.

Billed as a hearing on statewide water quality and contamination, the daylong hearing did briefly touch on issues of lead in the water of New York City’s schools and a similar tainted-water problem in Newburgh, in the Hudson Valley.

But the central topic on Wednesday was Hoosick Falls, and the state’s performance. And by and large, the reviews were not positive.

“Somebody,” said Assemblyman Dan Stec, a North Country Republican, “could have done a much better job.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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