Blogs > Docket > Nine months later, PFOS pollution from the Stewart Air National Guard Base continues unabated

Nine months later, PFOS pollution from the Stewart Air National Guard Base continues unabated

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US Air Force photo showing firefighting exercise at Stewart Air National Guard in 2004.
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Nine months after test results identified the Stewart Air National Guard Base as the most important source of toxic PFOS to Newburgh’s drinking water supply and other downstream waters, contaminated water continues to be discharged without treatment. It’s past time for the U.S. Military to stop this contamination from getting into our waterways.

While Newburgh residents are drinking uncontaminated tap water, thanks to the state’s intervention and provision of alternate drinking water, the creeks downstream of the base are still being polluted.

In a statement to NBC News, the Air Force said it would conduct a site investigation through much of 2017 – which in effect would put on hold for a year or more any action to fully characterize the pollution in groundwater under the base and, critically, to implement short-term filtration of polluted water leaving the base and contaminating downstream waters. The DEC has defined the contamination sufficiently for the the Air Force to take action now to filter polluted water leaving the Air National Guard Base.

WATCH: NBC News two-part report on Newburgh water crisis:

In March 2016, DEC test results showed that stormwater outfalls on the Stewart Air National Guard Base are the largest known sources of toxic PFOS or perfluorooctane sulfonate, to the streams that feed Washington Lake, the City of Newburgh’s primary reservoir, and downstream waters that are part of the Moodna and Quassaick Creek watersheds. (Riverkeeper had highlighted the risk of contamination from the Air National Guard Base in February 2015.)

In May 2016, Riverkeeper called on the Air National Guard Base, and other agencies potentially responsible for contamination to cease and desist all discharges of PFOS. We called for mobile filtration technology to be installed at the outlet of Recreation Pond, which receives polluted stormwater discharges from several points originating from both the Air National Guard Base and the adjacent Stewart International Airport. We reiterated this call in June and July 2016, and in testimony before a joint session of the NYS Legislature in August. The City of Newburgh and the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance have also called for mobile filtration technology to address these discharges.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s investigation to date, the single largest cause of contamination is believed to be the release, in 1990, of firefighting foam concentrate at the Air National Guard Base. Other activities, including at the Stewart International Airport, such as firefighting exercises and equipment testing, and the extinguishing of a commercial aircraft fire, may also have contributed to contamination downstream.

With state assistance, the City of Newburgh has switched to alternate drinking water sources, and will install filtration before returning to Washington Lake as its primary source of water. Results presented publicly by DEC in September show surface and groundwater contamination in both the Quassaick Creek and Moodna Creek watersheds, including in drinking water wells. Tests of fish tissues to determine the extent of contamination in the ecosystem — including fish that people might catch and eat — are pending.

From presentation by DEC 9-19-2016 to Newburgh community.

PFOS contamination near Stewart Air National Guard Base and Stewart International Airport, showing contamination in surface water both in the streams that feed Lake Washignton, and those associated with Beaverdam Brook, a tributary of the Moodna Creek. From presentation by DEC 9-19-2016 to Newburgh community.

Seven months after we first called for treatment of this source of contamination to protect downstream waters, and nine months after test results showed PFOS contamination in the discharges from Air National Guard Base stormwater outfalls — at levels as high as 84-times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current drinking water advisory level — have continued unabated, and without filtration.

From presentation by DEC 9-19-2016 to Newburgh community.

Contamination from stormwater outfalls at the Air National Guard Base, showing the highest levels of contamination at Recreation Pond, which receives stormwater discharges from several points on the Air National Guard Base and Stewart International Airport. From presentation by DEC 9-19-2016 to Newburgh community.

What’s more, the U.S. Military had been aware of the toxicity of PFOS-based firefighting foams for decades – well before the releases of firefighting foam concentrate at the Stewart Air National Guard Base in 1990. An investigative report published in October by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Colorado Springs Gazette, found that “Multiple studies dating back to the 1970s found health risks from the foam, and even an agreement 16 years ago between the Environmental Protection Agency and the foam’s main manufacturer to stop making the substance did not curtail the Air Force’s usage.”

US Air Force photo showing firefighting exercise at Stewart Air National Guard Base in 2004.

The DEC, at Newburgh’s urging, installed mobile filtration technology at Washington Lake, so the reservoir could be drawn down safely without releasing contamination downstream. The Air National Guard needs to take the same step to filter the PFOS-contaminated stormwater emanating from its Stewart base – now. It’s been decades since the military was made aware of the risks of PFOS firefighting foam, and months since the Air National Guard Base was identified as the major source of contamination in and around Newburgh.

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