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Riverkeeper maps out how NYS must address growing water contamination concerns

For immediate release: September 7, 2016

Contact: Cliff Weathers, Communications Director
914-478-4501, ext. 239; [email protected]

Testimony includes calls for blood testing for Newburgh residents, new drinking water source protection program.

Albany, NY — In testimony before the joint Senate and Assembly hearings on water contamination, Riverkeeper urged lawmakers to take action in light of ongoing water crises around New York.

Riverkeeper warned state legislators of dire risks to New York’s waterways due to inadequate funding of our water future. Looking forward, the group provided specific guidance for governmental authorities to step up their efforts to protect public health and the environment.

The organization, which advocates for the Hudson River and clean water in the state, says that a comprehensive response emphasizing protection and prevention is needed for new and ongoing concerns, including the contamination of drinking water with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

Riverkeeper is calling on the state to increase spending for water infrastructure, restore staff to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, improve the assessment and protection of water sources, and restore contaminated waterways.

“The example of New York City is held up around the world for its success in protecting drinking water. And yet, as our analysis of the crisis in the City of Newburgh plainly shows, we have not applied the lessons learned by preserving New York City’s drinking water uniformly across our state,” said Riverkeeper Water Quality Program Manager Dan Shapley.

“This is an important case study in what can happen when we fail to use the tools available to protect drinking water. Instead of having high-quality water provided naturally by a well-managed watershed, we have a toxic chemical in the reservoir that 29,000 New York State residents rely on, and numerous additional threats to its water supply,” said Shapley.

“There are laws on the books that could have helped Newburgh avoid the current crisis. We need to keep the pollutants out of our water in the first place,” said John Parker, Director of Legal Programs. “A change of course is needed — to increase investments to keep water clean and to enforce the laws.”

What Have We Learned from Newburgh?
Newburgh has faced a public health crisis after the toxic chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was found to have contaminated its primary reservoir at levels well in excess of EPA advisory thresholds. New York State has since declared the Stewart Air National Guard Base — a major source of the contamination — a state Superfund site.

While alternative sources of water have been provided to ensure Newburgh’s tap water is PFOS free in the short term, the city faces long-term challenges of removing the sources of contamination, cleansing its reservoir, providing appropriate medical attention to the 29,000 residents exposed to the water, and reversing the long-standing degradation of water quality in the streams, wetlands and open spaces that naturally filter and feed its reservoirs.

Similarly, water sources in Hoosick Falls have been contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and high levels of this carcinogenic chemical have been found in the blood of the village’s residents. The chemicals in Newburgh and Hoosick Falls are both PFCs, which have been linked to a number of serious health problems, including cancer, thyroid problems and high cholesterol.

Riverkeeper’s 4-point Plan for New York’s Clean Water Future:
Drinking Source Water Protection. The water crises demonstrate the importance of protecting source waters before they become contaminated. Source water protection promotes public health, as well as environmental and fiscal health. New York State has existing laws and regulations that are sufficient to provide a framework for source water protection. However, multiple agencies and levels of government must coordinate efforts, often across municipal boundaries, to successfully protect drinking water supplies and the watersheds that naturally filter them. The DEC and Department of Health need the staff, budget and direction to implement, enforce and coordinate steps required by law to protect drinking water supplies across New York State, including a new Source Water Assessment and Protection Program and implementation and enforcement of of clean water laws.

Water Infrastructure Investment. The New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015 established a new and valuable grants program that has effectively leveraged roughly five times its value in investments in drinking water and wastewater projects. This essential program must not be allowed to expire in 2017, and its funding must be increased — to $800 million — to clear the backlog in projects that had built up over decades. The successful program is essential to providing clean drinking water, as well as high quality water for wildlife, recreation and business.

Water Resource Management Planning. New York State’s water management policy needs to catch up to its energy policy, which is going through a fundamental reinvention. We need the same sort of fundamental reform when it comes to water resources management.

In an era of increasing stress on New York’s drinking water reservoirs, lakes, aquifers and rivers, any truly sustainable strategy for water resources management must maximize the use of cost-effective water conservation and efficiency projects, reduce water losses, and employ pricing policies that create incentives for water conservation.

Budget and Staffing. A coordinated approach to source water protection and water resources management will require adequate funding and staffing for key state agencies, particularly the Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC — particularly its Division of Water — has suffered disproportionate cuts over many years, relative to other aspects of state government, even as the demands on the agency, and the state’s population, have increased. No response to the drinking water crises in New York State can be considered adequate without a new and sustained commitment to budget and staffing necessary for state agencies to implement key programs outlined here.

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