After government officials and environmental activists rallied together in front of the City of Newburgh’s Water Filtration Plant in order to protest the high levels of chemicals PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, Governor Andrew Cuomo finally announced that the State of New York will begin adopting stricter maximum contaminant levels.
On July 9, Assemblyman Jonathan G. Jacobson and Senator James Skoufis, along with other officials and activists, called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to set statewide chemical maximum contaminant levels, which would create less toxic drinking water throughout New York. They also urged to implement testing for emerging contaminants in every public water system, which is required by the Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act of 2017.
During the rally, Senator Skoufis mentioned a bill that had been recently passed, which banned the use and manufacturing of PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam in New York.
Back in 2016, it was discovered that Newburgh’s water source was contaminated by the Department of Defense when the New York Air National Guard Base “discharg[ed] firefighting foam [into Lake Washington],” said Elizabeth Moran, the Environmental Policy Director at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Three years later, the City of Newburgh still has not returned to Lake Washington. It receives its water from the Catskill Aqueduct.
According to a report released by the NYPIRG in May called “Emerging Contaminants in New York’s Drinking Water Systems, ingestion of PFOA and PFOS endanger public health at very low levels of exposure, resulting in developmental effects to fetuses, thyroid disorders, ulcerative colitis, high-cholesterol, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.”
The NYPIRG found that the drinking water for more than 1.4 million New Yorkers contained levels of PFOA/PFOS at 0.3 parts per billion. Approximately 2.8 million residents in New York were exposed to the chemical 1,4-dioxane with levels above 4 parts per trillion.
On July 8, Governor Cuomo declared that $350 million became available through the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act and the Intermunicipal Water Infrastructure Grant Program “for municipalities with infrastructure projects that protect public health or improve water quality.”
In a press release, he also announced that New York’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, accepted the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council’s recommendations for maximum contaminant levels in drinking water for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. These new levels are 10 parts per trillion for PFOA/PFOS and 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane.
“We’re proposing the most protective levels in the nation for three emerging contaminants to ensure we are regularly testing and fixing water systems before they ever rise to a public health risk in any part of the state,” Governor Cuomo stated. “New York State will continue to lead in the absence of federal action by ensuring all residents have access to clean drinking water and by investing in critical projects to assist municipalities in treating these emerging contaminants,” he added.
Moran believes that this is an important step in the right direction, which gives people a lot of hope. “It is truly an opportunity for New York State to show the rest of the country how we best protect drinking water and [to inform] the public [that] this class of chemicals that we’re learning [about] is totally unsafe for public health,” she said.
These new levels present significant differences to the guidance levels of 70 parts per trillion in both PFOA and PFOS that were set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, “these guidelines set by the EPA are not legally enforceable,” Moran explained.
While New York’s new guidelines are some of the strictest maximum contaminant levels in the nation, there are thousands of other toxic and harmful chemicals present in drinking water. “There’s a new type of PFAS chemical called GenX, which is being used to replace [PFOA],” said Moran. While GenX is a smaller chemical than PFOA, “we’re now finding it to be just as toxic.” It is believed that the rest of the thousands of chemicals found in drinking water are most likely unsafe as well.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” said Moran. “We need to make sure that we better protect our drinking water at its source. We need fully funded water infrastructure. Today’s announcement can only be the beginning.”