Newburgh residents gathered at the Ritz Theatre on July 27 for an all-day event that educated participants on the current state of drinking water in New York State and in their local community. The event was organized by the environmental advocacy group the Newburgh Clean Water Project, which aims to protect and restore Newburgh’s watershed. The event was aptly named “We Deserve Clean Water!” and discussed the consequences of PFAS contamination, particularly in Lake Washington. The group also seeks to restore the watershed and protect it against development that would threaten its sterility.
Newburgh’s water source was found to be contaminated by PFAS chemicals in 2016 after the New York Air National Guard Base released firefighting foam into Lake Washington. Three years later, and the City’s primary water source is still nowhere in Newburgh, as it uses the Catskill Aqueduct.
Recently, on July 8, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $350 million to go towards 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.”
Cuomo additionally promised that New York State would now have maximum contaminant levels in drinking water for the chemicals PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. These new levels sought to increase the accessibility of clean drinking water in the state. Clean drinking water is now only acceptable with levels of 10 parts per trillion for PFOA/PFOS chemicals and 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane.
While these are some of the most protective drinking standards in the country, environmental activists still seek to educate those around them on the danger of even small amounts of PFAS chemicals in drinking water.
“[This event was] important for the residents of the City of Newburgh because it was an opportunity for them to find out more about what they can do to protect their own backyards, their own watershed, their own water supply and their own health,” said organizer Tamsin Hollo, member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project.
Participants were able to go on watershed safari tours, where people could “actually go out and see what happened to our water, how it got contaminated, what the current threats are, and what we can do about it,” explained Hollo. The event additionally held a reading library where people could read up on the science behind Newburgh’s water.
The event was family friendly, with activities tailored to kids. “When the young people know what their watershed is, that’s when it really starts to make sense. That’s when people want to start protecting what they have,” said Hollo.
During the afternoon, the Newburgh Clean Water Project hosted a tabling event with multiple environmental advocacy organizations. Some of these groups included Riverkeeper, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG,) Scenic Hudson, EarthJustice, Environmental Advocates of New York, and Food & Water Watch.
According to Elizabeth Moran, the Environmental Policy Director of the NYPIRG, the environmental advocacy organizations were at this event to urge New York State to set a strong(er) drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. People who attended the tabling event were interested in understanding the toxicity of PFOA and PFOS chemicals and what that meant for public health. “The [same] answer comes down to any of these questions,” she said. “The state needs to be doing much more than it already is to protect our water quality. We need to make sure that the standard we set for drinking water are fully protective of public health and the environment, and we need to make sure that [polluters] are held accountable.”
Moran believes that there needs to be more done to ensure that the entire state, including Newburgh, has access to clean drinking water. “This was a fantastic event that was run by residents and for residents. [It] is so important for the community because this is making available critical information about their health and the quality of their water,” she said. “Residents [can] communicate to their neighbors why it’s so important to learn, and of course, take action on these issues.”
The event also held a water ceremony with Grandmother Carole Bubar Blodgette, who has walked the entire length of the Hudson River. “She [had some really practical solutions] that really emphasized that nothing can be done without people taking action, and that it’s our responsibility as caretakers to really make sure that what happens to our water doesn’t happen again,” said Hollo.
After the Water Ceremony, participants watched a documentary called “The Devil We Know,” which was about PFAS in America’s water supply.
Hollo hopes that attendees would be empowered to advocate for themselves. “You don’t have to be a scientist to advocate for clean water for yourself and your children. All you have to be is a concerned resident, so I hope that people came away feeling like the power was back in their hands, and they can have a say in what happens to their own health and their children’s health moving forward,” she said.
The Newburgh Clean Water Project is urging City residents to attend the Restoration Advisory Committee meeting at the Newburgh Armory on July 31 at 6 p.m. The meeting has been called by the Department of Defense and the Air Guard.
Though the Restoration Advisory Committee is made up of local citizens that eventually will “get to advise the Department of Defense on how our watershed is cleaned up, they [currently] have not been very inclusive to invite the wider Newburgh community,” said Hollo.
“We know that water is a fundamental human right. This is a moral right that we have, as creatures living on this earth. But, unfortunately, our government doesn’t always treat water in this way,” said Moran.
After the event ended, Moran hoped that more people would begin to “advocate for stronger water quality protections in New York State,” especially after “understanding that there was a whole watershed for Newburgh that needs to be protected.”
Moran said that once people heard that there’s likely no safe level of PFOA and PFOS, many left the event as strong believers in advocating for New York State to set lower levels than what they proposed back in July. “Their voices are critical. They are needed. If they don’t speak out, action will not happen,” she said.
To learn more about the Newburgh Water Project, please visit: newburghcleanwaterproject.org.