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NYS commits to Newburgh Source Water Assessment

In joint legislative hearings on water quality Sept. 7, Martin Brand, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s deputy commissioner for remediation, committed to updating and improving the deeply flawed Source Water Assessment for the City of Newburgh. Riverkeeper has called for this, and we view this as a key development to correct several longstanding issues identified in our July 2016 report, A Case Study and A Call for Comprehensive Source Water Protection. Done well, this can help prevent another drinking water crisis such as Newburgh is experiencing now. We applaud the state for committing to this. We will follow the details closely as the state proceeds, and we expect to contribute directly to the drafting of a new Source Water Assessment that prioritizes actions that will be funded as part of a Source Water Protection Program.

Quoting from our report, in part (see pgs. 25-28 for the full critique of the existing Source Water Assessment):

“The Source Water Assessment map delineating City of Newburgh’s drinking water supply watershed is inaccurate and incomplete, focusing only on the Brown’s Pond backup reservoir to the exclusion of the city’s primary reservoir, Lake Washington. Relying on that flawed map, the assessment omits substantial and important portions of the watershed, including Stewart Airport and the Stewart Air National Guard Base [subsequently designated a state Superfund site in August 2016], and areas around Patton Brook, which include areas vulnerable to development at the intersection of the NYS Thruway and I-84, where in fact much development has occurred, and is currently taking place. Lacking an accurate map or assessment, numerous environmental impact statements under State Environmental Quality Review Act are likely to have been inadequate in the planning for these developments. Steps that might have prevented or mitigated impacts were not taken.

“The assessment also failed to adequately assess risks to the watershed, including direct discharges from Stewart Airport and Air National Guard Base, the presence of landfills in the watershed, stormwater runoff from extensive impervious surface cover, and future development potential in the watershed. The source water assessment is summarized in the city’s 2014 Annual Water Quality Report as follows, with emphasis added:

“‘The analysis of available information for this source water assessment did not find any significant sources of contamination in the watershed. Statewide and local databases of permitted facilities were used to identify discrete potential sources of contamination. No discrete sources were identified within the assessment area….’

“As evidenced by the current drinking water contamination and the sources identified to date, there are both significant sources of contamination and discrete sources of contamination that have already contaminated the drinking water supply for the City of

“The assessment for Brown’s Pond relied on outdated aerial photography. The risks to this watershed were not identified sufficiently, as evidenced in part by the presence of potentially Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) on Brown’s Pond documented in 2013 and 2015. These algae blooms can produce cyanotoxins, and the EPA has found that ‘adverse health outcomes from exposure to cyanotoxins may range from a mild skin rash to serious illness or death.’ Recognizing the threat to public health from HABs, EPA has published Health Advisories for cyanotoxins produced by HABS69 and recommendations for managing public water supplies affected by them. The first recommended management step in a system-specific surface water evaluation is identified as “effective source water protection strategies to limit excess nutrients in surface water.” Excess nutrients can be associated with agricultural or urban land uses, and if ‘source water is vulnerable to nutrient rich runoff from agriculture or urban areas, the [Public Water System] may be vulnerable to cyanotoxins as well,’ according to the EPA’s management recommendations. Urbanization in Newburgh’s source watershed has been dramatic, and was not identified as a threat in the DOH’s 2005 Source Water Assessment focused on Brown’s Pond. Development is occurring or being considered today that would put the source waters at further risk.

“The DOH [Department of Health] should initiate the drafting of a new and comprehensive Source Water Assessment. Pursuant to the DOH’s 1999 Source Water Protection Plan, the DOH, ‘may update the assessments (and make them available to the public) as necessary to meet the originally defined or evolving objectives of the assessment for each public water system source.’ The originally defined objective was never met, as evidenced by the inaccurate map and failure to identify discrete and significant sources of contamination…. Further, the objective has clearly evolved with the documentation of Harmful Algal Blooms in Brown’s Pond, and the identification of PFOS and other emerging contaminants in Lake Washington. As such, the threshold has clearly been met for the development of a new Source Water Assessment.”

Here is the key exchange from the hearings (starting at 3:57 in the online video):

ASSEMBLYMAN FRANK SKARTADOS: In addition, Commissioner Seggos, the July 2016 Riverkeeper report titled “A Case Study and Call for Comprehensive Source Water Protection” identifies inaccuracies in the City of Newburgh’s Source Water Assessment map in that it doesn’t include Lake Washington, which is the city’s primary water supply. Are you familiar with this omission and do you support updating the map to include all current and potential sources of water pollution to the City of Newburgh’s water assessment….

MARTIN BRAND: Back to the Source Water Assessment, the watershed assessment, we would agree that the current assessment is out of date. It’s an older assessment … This one probably dates back to the early 2000s. I have looked at the Riverkeeper report, and we don’t disagree that some updating could be done as part of the Source Water Assessment Program. We did mention that as part of the Rapid Response Team, we are going to be looking with fresh eyes at that water assessment program, and I also know that part of our group at DEC, The Hudson River Estuary Program, has already had discussions with the City of Newburgh about what they can do to help out with the water assessment program in Newburgh. We would be very happy to assist in that program and of course incorporate the various watershed interest groups there that are very interested in this as well.”

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