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New York Sets Drinking Water Safeguards

Coalition urges continued action to address emerging contaminants
A glass filled with drinking water.

For the first time, New York drinking water systems, which together serve more than 2 million New Yorkers, will be required to test and remove PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane, and three toxic emerging contaminants that exceed the newly set Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs).

Peter Cade / Getty Images
July 30, 2020
Albany, NY —

Today, the NY Department of Health (DOH) took the final step to establish Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and 1,4-dioxane, three toxic emerging contaminants found in drinking water across the state.

DOH’s Public Health and Health Planning Council voted to set MCLs at 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA, 10 ppt for PFOS, and 1 part per billion (ppb) for 1,4-dioxane. The regulations will appear in the next State Register, at which time they will be in effect.

The MCLs will require all water systems in New York to test for these harmful chemicals and remove them from drinking water when the MCLs are exceeded. Over 2,000 small water systems, which together serve more than 2 million New Yorkers, have never been required to test for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane.

Clean water organizations emphasized that these MCLs are the first step in protecting drinking water from emerging contaminants. They detailed a suite of policy actions still needed from Governor Cuomo’s administration and the State Legislature to ensure that every New Yorker’s water is clean and safe to drink.

Rob Hayes, clean water associate at Environmental Advocates NY said, “We are glad that Maximum Contaminant Levels are finally in place. These new drinking water protections are the direct result of tireless advocacy by community members who literally have these chemicals in their blood.

We will continue to urge Governor Cuomo to strengthen these regulations through regular reviews going forward. The science is clear: to protect people from cancer and other health hazards, New York must remove all PFAS from drinking water. Quick action is needed; it took almost five years for Governor Cuomo’s administration to set these MCLs, and we can’t afford to wait that long for new drinking water standards.”

Michele Baker, Hoosick Falls resident and member of the New York Water Project, said, “I’ve waited for this day for five years. Yes, that’s how long it’s been since I learned my water had been poisoned with PFOA. That’s how long I’ve lived in fear of the PFOA in my blood.

The people of Hoosick Falls fought for these drinking water protections every step of this process. Because of the persistence of our community, fewer New Yorkers will have to worry about toxins in their water when they turn on the faucet.

New York shouldn’t forget about Hoosick Falls, because there’s much more to do. It’s time to regulate all PFAS, not just two of them. It’s time to address contamination of private water wells, not just public water systems. And it’s time for New York to commit to always, always making the protection of human health its first priority.”

Cynthia Mack said, “It is imperative that MCLs for PFOA, PFOS, and the entire class of PFAS chemicals be limited to the lowest detectable levels. My own son died of childhood cancer. My friend’s son, who lived five houses away from us, is suffering from disabilities in the aftermath of childhood cancer and its archaic treatment. Countless students are currently battling childhood cancer in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District, and others are experiencing neurological and immunodeficiencies. It is derelict behavior to allow this contamination to continue. Acknowledging childhood cancers are gravely under researched and cannot be directly correlated with the contamination of our drinking with the PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane, the fact remains that there are multiple negative effects on fetal development as well as overall infant and child growth and development.” Cynthia is a Greater Newburgh Resident, Mother & Teaching Assistant in Newburgh Enlarged City School District, Stewart Air National Guard Base Restoration Advisory Committee member, and a member of the Health Committee of the Newburgh Clean Water Project.

Steve Englebright, Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, said, “This is an important and necessary first step to removing harmful chemicals from our drinking water. These emerging contaminants all present unacceptable risks to human health and need to be removed. Ideally, the federal government would be setting nationwide standards to prevent dangerous chemicals from entering our drinking water, but they seem more concerned with the pocketbooks of polluters rather than consumers.”

“New York has a responsibility to take care of the people who live here,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried. “We must have the strongest commitment to water quality for implementing the testing and remediation necessary to meet these standards in communities across the state, including monitoring emerging science about these dangerous chemicals. We must also continue to regulate other dangerous chemicals, including establishing a broader Emerging Contaminant Monitoring List as the Legislature required in 2017.”

Senator Kevin Thomas said, “Our communities depend on clean, quality drinking water. That is why I am proud to sponsor legislation that increases investment in clean water infrastructure and protects our environment for future generations. Together, we are making it clear that New Yorkers have a right to healthy communities, safe drinking water, and less exposure to harmful chemicals.”

Yvonne Taylor, Vice President of Seneca Lake Guardian, said, “Seneca Lake Guardian applauds Governor Cuomo and his Department of Health for setting MCLs on drinking water as a good first step in protecting public health. Finger Lakes residents will finally learn whether or not these toxic chemicals are in their drinking water. But with these regulations, New York is just addressing the tip of the iceberg. Seneca Lake Guardian’s independent testing has indicated that many other types of PFAS are present around Seneca Lake, and New York must soon limit these chemicals in drinking water as well. Funding for cleanup and transparency are also key factors that must be addressed as soon as possible in order to help keep those of us impacted by these contaminants safe.”

Eric Weltman, senior organizer for Food & Water Action, said, “After nearly five years of waiting, we’re glad these standards are finally in place. But the science clearly tells us that these standards can and should be stronger. We won’t relent until our drinking water is as safe as possible.”

Victoria Leung, associate staff attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc., said, “We appreciate that DOH finally has set MCLs for PFOA and PFOS after years of advocacy from community members. We hope that these standards will be implemented as soon as possible to ensure all New Yorkers have safe drinking water and aid the complete remediation of contaminated sites.”

However, this is only the first step. DOH must maintain its momentum and continue to set stronger standards in line with the science, and regulate the entire PFAS class of chemicals. We urge the State to move expediently in providing this, a long overdue response to protect the health of New Yorkers.”

Liz Moran, environmental policy director for NYPIRG, said,“NYPIRG is pleased that the long awaited MCLs for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane will soon be in place. The communities that have been harmed by these chemicals have fought for years for drinking water standards — thanks to their tireless advocacy, that first battle has finally been won. Now there will be a clear path forward to clean and treat the drinking water serving millions of New Yorkers that has already been contaminated by these chemicals. But New York cannot allow mistakes of the past to be repeated. We urge Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health to ensure these MCLs keep up with the latest health science and are reviewed regularly moving forward.”

Alok Disa, senior research and policy analyst for Earthjustice, said, “There is a growing consensus that there is no safe level of exposure to PFAS, and that PFAS must be regulated together as a class. Recognizing the serious threat to human health, New York recently passed legislation that will end exposure to PFAS through food packaging. So while we applaud the Department of Health for adopting maximum contaminant level regulations for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane, this is just the first step towards eliminating PFAS in our drinking water. More must be done for New York State to live up to its promise of ensuring all New Yorkers have clean drinking water and to truly protect us from the serious health harms associated with PFAS. DOH should commit to reviewing and updating these standards on a regular basis to ensure they will actually protect the health of New Yorkers. And we urge the Governor to immediately begin the process of regulating the entire class of PFAS to cut off our exposure to these toxic chemicals.”

Background

In 2015, elevated levels of PFOA were discovered in the drinking water of Hoosick Falls, a small village in Rensselaer County. PFOA, known as a “forever chemical” due to its persistence in the environment, was used in the manufacture of non-stick pots and pans, stain-resistant carpeting, and waterproof clothing. Hoosick Fall’s PFOA contamination was linked to a Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility. In 2016, PFOA was discovered in the drinking water of Petersburgh, NY.

In 2016, the City of Newburgh discovered elevated levels of PFOS in Washington Lake, its drinking water source. Firefighting foam containing PFOS from the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base seeped into the lake and had polluted the water over decades.

High levels of PFOA and PFOS were found in the blood of thousands of residents from Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh, and Newburgh.

1,4-dioxane, a chemical used in industrial processes and found in household cleaning and personal care products, has polluted Long Island’s sole-source aquifer and is present in many public drinking water wells on the Island.

In December 2018, the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council recommended MCLs for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane. DOH accepted these recommendations and began a rulemaking process to establish MCLs in July 2019.

Moving Forward

Clean water organizations have identified a comprehensive set of policies that New York policymakers must adopt next to ensure clean water for all New Yorkers:

  1. Regulate PFAS as a class, and limit these chemicals in drinking water to the lowest detectable and treatable levels. PFOA and PFOS are just two of the thousands of chemicals in the class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and the latest science indicates there is no safe level of PFAS in drinking water. The State of Michigan recently set MCLs for seven PFAS.
  2. Establish an Emerging Contaminant Monitoring List. In 2017, the State Legislature instructed DOH to create a list of currently unregulated contaminants to be tested for by all water systems in New York. That list has still not been promulgated. Every New Yorker deserves to know what’s in their water. Many chemicals harmful to human health, like strontium and chromium-6, are currently unregulated in drinking water.
  3. Invest at least $1 billion annually in the Clean Water Infrastructure Act (CWIA) to ensure adequate funding for treatment technology. The state fiscal year 2020-2021 New York State Budget allocated $500 million in new funding for the CWIA, which includes grant funding the installation of granular activated carbon and advanced oxidation process filtration to remove PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane from drinking water. This funding must be expanded upon as well as protected from any budget cuts.
  4. Ensure data transparency. All emerging contaminant testing, and especially the results of the upcoming PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane testing, must be easily accessible by the public. DOH should collect all statewide emerging contaminant testing data and publish the results on their website.

Contacts

Brian Keegan, Environmental Advocates of NY

Nydia Gutierrez, Earthjustice

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