hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News August 2016



Lawmakers pledge multiple inquiries on PFOA


After several months in which their pleas seemed to fall mainly on deaf ears, local activists appear to have succeeded in triggering at least three separate legislative inquiries into the water contamination crisis affecting northeastern Rensselaer County.

In early July, both the state Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives announced plans to hold hearings examining how New York officials responded to the discovery that water supplies in the communities of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh were contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

Within days, state Sen. Kathleen Marchione, R-Halfmoon, announced that the state Senate also would hold hearings on the water situation, with an initial session to be scheduled sometime in August in Hoosick Falls. Marchione, whose district includes Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, had faced harsh criticism locally after she argued repeatedly in recent months that legislative hearings would only be an exercise in blame and finger pointing.

PFOA, which is considered a likely carcinogen, is an industrial chemical that was widely used in past decades in the manufacture of nonstick coatings such as Teflon and in a variety of other products. Studies have linked PFOA exposure to testicular and kidney cancer, heart and thyroid disease and other ailments.

The chemical was used by at least two manufacturing plants in Hoosick Falls, one in Petersburgh, and others across the Vermont state line in North Bennington and Pownal. PFOA contamination has turned up in water supplies in all four communities, although the contamination in North Bennington has affected only private wells.

In New York, state health officials have faced criticism for failing to alert the public to the presence of PFOA in the Hoosick Falls water system for more than a year after the contamination was first discovered. Activists have suggested that one goal of legislative hearings would be to shed more light on why the public was not informed sooner.

The contamination in Hoosick Falls was discovered in 2014 by Michael Hickey, a private citizen who had begun to suspect that environmental contamination played a role in the cancer deaths of his father and several other people close to him. His father had worked at one of the factories that used PFOA, and Hickey collected tap water samples from his home and two local businesses and had them tested for the chemical. The tests came back positive.

PFOA is not among the contaminants for which municipal water systems normally are required to test, so village officials in Hoosick Falls had been unaware of the contamination. But after Hickey and a local doctor brought the contamination to their attention in 2014, village and state officials continued to insist for more than a year that Hoosick Falls water was safe to drink. The state backed away from that claim only after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened in November 2015 and said flatly that the water was not safe.

In June, the online news site Politico New York, citing documents it obtained from the EPA through a Freedom of Information Act request, reported that state health officials “resisted sounding a public alarm” even as federal regulators argued that people in Hoosick Falls needed to be told they were drinking water with dangerous levels of PFOA. The report said documents show the state also actively disputed the EPA’s contention that the concentrations of PFOA found in the water were unsafe.

At the time, tests had found PFOA in drinking water at concentrations of more than 500 parts per trillion, well above the EPA’s advisory limit of 400 ppt. The EPA has since lowered its safety threshold for PFOA to 70 ppt.

Last month, the Cuomo administration began turning over documents requested by the U.S. House of Representatives as part of an inquiry into the Hoosick Falls water crisis by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The inquiry was requested by U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, whose district includes Hoosick Falls. Gibson is not a member of the panel, but its membership includes Vermont’s lone House member, Democrat Peter Welch.
The water crisis also has drawn the attention of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who attended a sometimes emotional roundtable discussion on the issue last month in Hoosick Falls.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley