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Hold state hearings on Hoosick Falls pollution

Hold state hearings on Hoosick Falls pollution

Public review could expose flaws in procedures, prevent future crises

Best-selling author Brene Brown once wrote that "courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”

The New York State Legislature could show some courage — and protect the future health of its residents — by letting the public see how the state responds to water pollution emergencies.

But courage isn't exactly a trademark of our state leaders, especially when the outcome might expose public officials to criticism.

Some state lawmakers, including Rensselaer Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin and the chairs of the Assembly environmental conservation and health committees, have called for legislative hearings into the state's handling of the Hoosick Falls water contamination crisis.

Questions have been raised about the speed and degree of the public response after officials were made aware that high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — a toxic, cancerous chemical used in the manufacture of such items as Teflon-coated pans — had pervaded the community's water supply.

Hearings on the contamination would potentially expose officials in the Cuomo administration, state and federal departments, and industrial producers of chemicals to serious questions about when they knew about the contamination and why they didn't act more quickly to protect Hoosick Falls residents from exposure.

More importantly for the long-term health of all New Yorkers, such hearings could publicly expose flaws in procedures now used to identify and react to chemical contamination. That, in turn, could compel lawmakers to consider legislation that would strengthen reporting requirements, set stricter parameters for declaring emergencies and taking action, establish sources of funding for immediate and long-term water treatment, and increase sanctions against companies that illegally discharge dangerous chemicals into the water supply.

Legislative hearings, shown live on TV and the Internet, would force officials to answer tough questions in a public setting about the Hoosick Falls situation and about how the state handles such emergencies.

Without the public exposure generated by public hearings, state health and environmental officials will feel entitled to treat this situation as a one-time occurrence and won't be as motivated to make necessary changes.

But despite the dangers of this particular crisis and the potential for others all around the state, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has been resistant to hold public hearings.

We don't know why. Maybe he legitimately thinks the problems have been resolved and that the hearings would be a waste of time. Maybe he thinks hearings would make the Democratic administration look bad in an election year. Maybe he doesn't want to extend the legislative session beyond June because lawmakers will want to get back to their districts to campaign for re-election. Or maybe he doesn't want to give certain legislators the opportunity to use the hearings to show-boat for their constituents or expose others to criticism from political opponents.

None of those concerns are more important than getting to the bottom of this crisis and preventing the next one.

The state needs to show some courage. It needs to let itself be seen. It needs to hold hearings on this situation.

If it won't, then the public has every right to ask why not.

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