Cuomo administration moves to declare Hoosick Falls a Superfund site

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The Hoosick Falls Water Department. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY — The state will declare the polluted water of Hoosick Falls a Superfund site, conduct a health risk analysis of its residents and test more water wells to address toxic chemicals that have leached into a town water well, Cuomo administration officials announced alongside local elected leaders during a press conference Wednesday.

The Department of Environmental Conservation on Wednesday issued emergency regulation declaring perfluorooctanoic acid — or PFOA, which has been linked to cancer and may have polluted the Hoosick Falls water supply — as a hazardous substance so that it can quickly begin remediation. The Department of Health will install filtration systems at schools and other community gathering spaces and develop a state telephone hotline for health information, state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said at the conference. Blood testing of community members will begin in mid-February.

Zucker said the state will also revise the level of PFOA in water that it considers safe. The state currently considers a PFOA level in water safe as long as it is below 50,000 parts per trillion. That number is dramatically above the federal recommendation of 400 parts per trillion. Zucker said the state will set a new level within the next few weeks.

“There hasn’t been any health affects that we’ve noticed on this,” he said Wednesday. “However, I may also add as a precaution, we will be looking and will continue to look at any risks that people may been exposed to.”

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The state health department’s newly aggressive stance comes after weeks of negative attention to the Hoosick Falls pollution. It is also a sharp reversal from December, when state officials assured concerned residents of the village of about 4,000 that “normal use” of the water would not pose health risks. It also comes after the Federal Environmental Protection Agency stepped in last month and told residents they could not drink or cook with the water, and may declare it a federal Superfund site, which would require the company responsible for the pollution to fund its cleanup.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and administration officials met with town officials shortly before Wednesday’s press conference.

“These actions will ensure that the source and extent of PFOA contamination is identified, and all necessary steps are taken to swiftly address the chemical’s presence,” Cuomo said in a statement. “My administration is investigating this situation fully, and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure safe, clean drinking water for local residents.”

At least eight states have regulations against PFOA, and a number have set safe levels of PFOA in line with those of the federal government.

On Wednesday, Zucker blamed the Obama administration for not acting swiftly enough.

“The governor realized that this is the state of New York, the community is concerned,” Zucker said. “We have recognized we need to tackle this, the federal government has had their level out there and they haven’t taken any action. As you know, this governor is not the most patient person and said ‘let’s get this done’ and we have.”

Hoosick Falls residents first raised questions about the polluted water more than a year ago. State officials learned about the pollution in late 2014, but did not conduct testing until July 2015, Zucker acknowledged. They also asked town officials to keep recently returned well test results private

Shortly after being informed of the situation this fall, the EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck took prompt action and federal regulators issued the warning about drinking.

The state Health Department refused to caution residents of Hoosick Falls that their water contained levels of toxic chemicals considered unsafe by the federal government for more than a year, even as evidence mounted that a serious health crisis could be unfolding. The village has seen elevated levels of unusual types of cancers and other medical conditions consistent with unhealthy PFOA levels.

For decades, the Saint-Gobain factory in Hoosick Falls produced Teflon-coated materials that the EPA says may have polluted the village water supply with PFOA — a toxic chemical that is used in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and packaging. The EPA is investigating whether that chemical may have seeped into village wells when workers cleaned smokestack filters and other equipment at the factory, which Saint-Gobain has owned since 1999. Other factories in town may also used the chemical and its exact source has not yet been pinpointed.

The state’s inaction for more than a year caused more people to be exposed to PFOA, said Michael Hickey, a town resident who used his own money to discover the PFOA levels in the town’s water. After his father’s death from cancer, Hickey took his own water samples from sources around town and sent them to a lab out of state that confirmed elevated levels of PFOA.

“The Department of Health dropped the ball from the beginning in this situation,” Hickey said.

Hickey said he was surprised to find that Saint-Gobain has been easier to work with than the state health department and village officials. The company agreed to install a filtration system, even as local and state leaders attempted to tamp down concern among worried residents. At a recent town meeting, when concerned residents wanted to know if they had been harmed from their tap water, state officials assured them that the water was not dangerous, he said. That was a contradictory message to Hickey's own grassroots-group, which has been sounding the alarm for more than a year.

“The battle has really been more against the village and the state,” he said.