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New York Dept of Health Backtracks on Drinking Water Standards for PFOA, PFOS, 1,4-dioxane

Proposed ‘deferral’ system cuts public notification requirements from every three months to once a year; Deferral system could leave New Yorkers drinking toxic water for longer

The proposed revision by the New York Department of Health fails to specify the content of public notifications, leaving open the possibility that specific testing results, like the contaminant level, could be kept from the public.

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February 4, 2020
Albany, NY —

Just prior to today’s Drinking Water Quality Council meeting, state legislators, community advocates, and environmental groups called on Governor Cuomo to direct his Department of Health (DOH) to rescind a proposed revision to their soon-to-be-finalized Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane in public drinking water. The proposed revision creates an MCL deferral system that curtails public notification requirements and could unnecessarily delay the treatment of drinking water.

The MCL process in use today requires water suppliers to test for harmful chemicals and take action if DOH issues a Notice of Violation when levels exceed a certain threshold. These actions include public notifications and the development of a timeline to return the water supplier to compliance, which can include the installation of new treatment technology.

Last year, DOH proposed new MCLs for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane, chemicals which have polluted drinking water across New York. On January 22, DOH began taking public comment on a proposed revision to their regulation. The proposed revision creates a new deferral system that is unique to these chemicals.

Under the new process, a water supplier can request and receive a deferral to avoid formally violating an MCL for up to three years. A deferral system risks slowing the installation of treatment technology, potentially leaving New Yorkers drinking toxic water for longer. Water suppliers may be granted years to install granulated activated carbon (GAC) filtration for PFOA or PFOS contamination, even though GAC filtration is readily available and can be quickly installed.

Under the deferral system, after an initial public notification, water suppliers will only have to notify the public annually, rather than every three months as is standard for organic chemicals. Moreover, the proposed revision fails to specify the content of these public notifications, leaving open the possibility that specific testing results, like the contaminant level, could be kept from the public. Under current DOH regulations, such information and more must be included in public notification when there is a violation or “a situation posing a risk to public health.” Since the deferral system avoids a formal MCL violation, whether contamination is a ‘risk to public health’ would be left to the discretion of the water supplier or DOH.

Read the proposed revision. Public comment closes on March 9.

Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee said “As a former county legislator, who successfully lobbied for well water testing in Rockland County, we must ensure that children and families across the state are not falling ill due to contaminated water. That is why I do not support the Department of Health’s MCL deferral proposal. The proposed regulations do not adequately ensure water safety and leave the public in the dark about how contaminated their water may be. Think too of the detrimental health effect this will have on children and families across the state. We must ensure that New Yorkers have clean, safe water to drink and use. I will continue to support efforts to guarantee that our water is safe for all New Yorkers to enjoy.”

Mary Finneran, environmental activist and resident of Cairo said, “The Town of Cairo, New York has been impacted by PFOS in our water for several years. Without a drinking water standard in place for PFOS, people continue to drink the contaminated water. Our town cannot wait for the state to revise its regulations and create a whole new deferral program. We need the state to act now to protect the residents of Cairo, including babies and children in our elementary school.”

Ophra Wolf, Newburgh resident and Newburgh Clean Water Project member said, “Our community in Newburgh drank toxic water for decades because we weren’t notified that the levels of dangerous chemicals in our water could be harmful to our health. We strongly oppose this deferral provision which will weaken public notification mandates — a potential death sentence for residents of frontline communities like ours who depend on water quality safety transparency to protect the well-being of their residents, including children.”

Jennifer Plouffe, Hoosick Falls resident and NY Water Project member said, “New Yorkers need the strongest protections against these cancer-causing chemicals. So why is DOH trying to slow-walk the process to remove these contaminants from our drinking water? New Yorkers need action now, not years down the road. DOH should abandon this blatant attempt to give water suppliers a pass at providing clean water to all New Yorkers.”

Maureen Cunningham, senior director for clean water for Environmental Advocates of New York said, “New Yorkers deserve to have clean drinking water and they deserve to know when their water is too contaminated to drink. The proposed deferral provision for Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane circumvents the public notifications that are normally in place for MCL violations and may ultimately delay the treatment of toxic water. Four years after water crises in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh, the Department of Health is weakening their own rules, jeopardizing transparency, accountability, and public health in the process.”

Liz Moran, environmental policy director for NYPIRG, said, “The Department's proposal to allow deferred maximum contaminant level violations sets up communities to be needlessly exposed to dangerous chemicals. When the public turns on their taps, they trust that their government is ensuring that water is clean. But deferring action on critical drinking water standards would violate that basic trust and expectation and put public health in further jeopardy.”

Alok Disa, Earthjustice’s senior research & policy analyst said, “Any revisions to the proposed rule should have made it stronger with lower Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for these highly toxic chemicals. Instead, the Department of Health has proposed mechanisms to weaken it, allowing exceptions to compliance without any standards. The creation of such loopholes severely increases risks to public health and clearly goes against New York state’s commitment to ensuring clean drinking water for all communities.”

Kathleen A. Curtis, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York said, “New Yorkers deserve to know what's in the water we drink, the food we eat, and the products we buy. There’s already a process in place to keep us in the know when contaminant levels rise above legal limits in our water. That process is working, and shouldn’t be weakened. We urge the Department of Health to maintain their existing violations rules and frequency of reporting.”

Eric Weltman, a Brooklyn-based senior organizer with Food & Water Action said, “Governor Cuomo’s first commitment must be safeguarding the health and safety of New Yorkers. The Cuomo administration must stop dragging its heels on finalizing the most protective health standards for our water and enforcing them ASAP. The Cuomo administration is also obligated to ensure that state funding is available for municipal water systems to meet these standards. Anything less would recklessly endanger lives.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment said, “One of the most critical needs for the public is clean drinking water. We strongly object to the proposed process for a three-year delay for PFAS that can successfully and easily be treated by readily available carbon filtration. If there is a delay in the deployment of technology to treat 1,4 dioxane, the DOH process needs to include public notification of that delay. Delaying the filtration of toxic chemicals from public drinking water supplies is not good public health policy. The public deserves clean drinking water in the shortest possible timeline.” 

Jeremy Cherson, Riverkeeper’s legislative advocacy manager said, “Riverkeeper stands by our call for a more health-protective standard of two ppt combined for PFOA and PFOS, and opposes any deferral provision for PFOA and PFOS. The treatment technology is available, and there is no reason protections of public health should be delayed.”

Contacts

Brian Keegan, Environmental Advocates of New York

Pascale Jean-Gilles, MOA Jaffee

Mischa Sogut, MOA Gottfried

Jennifer Plouffe, SVCOA

Mary Finneran, Cairo, NY resident

Liz Moran, NYPIRG

Peter Hart, Food & Water Watch

Cliff Weathers, Riverkeeper

Nydia Gutierrez, Earthjustice

Brian Smith, Citizens Campaign for the Environment