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


News February-March 2016


Village in crisis over tainted water

In Hoosick Falls, contamination finding prompts fear, anger


Contributing writer


For more than a year, some local citizens had been warning about the presence of a toxic chemical they’d found in samples collected from the Hoosick Falls water system, but state and local officials insisted the water was safe.

Then in November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said flatly that that wasn’t true. The water should not be used for drinking, cooking or even for running humidifiers, the agency said.

Now people in the village and the surrounding town of Hoosick are angry, frightened and worried about the future – and about the likelihood that they already may have been exposed for years to a cancer-causing chemical.

Unlike Flint, Mich., where city authorities were warned of the danger of cutting corners on the city water system and did it anyway, the Hoosick Falls situation involves a water system that meets all state and federal water safety standards -- and an industrial chemical that no one knew was in the water until one man went looking for it.

Hoosick Falls has been a manufacturing center since the 19th century, and industry remains the backbone of the local economy. But local people have long suspected that the rate of cancer here is unusually high, and they tell of family members and friends with no known risk factors who developed rare or highly aggressive cancers.

Two years ago, alarmed by the cancer deaths of his father and several other people close to him, Michael Hickey started researching industrial chemicals. Many of the chemicals used in local factories were already regulated by the EPA, and the local water system was testing for them.
But when Hickey looked at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant where his father had worked, he encountered a different set of chemicals. One of them, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, was an ingredient in the plant’s products.

PFOA has been used since the 1940s in making nonstick coatings such as Teflon. Although it hasn’t been studied extensively in humans, PFOA has been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, heart and thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and other illnesses in people with workplace or environmental exposure.

“Michael did hundreds of hours of research,” said Marcus Martinez, a physician with a family practice in Hoosick Falls. “He was looking for a medical interpretation and sent it to me.”
Martinez, himself recently treated for a rare cancer, agreed that Hickey’s findings were troubling.
So in August 2014, Hickey drew samples of water from his home faucet and two local businesses and had them tested for PFOA at his own expense. The samples came back positive. His tap water had 540 parts per trillion, well above the EPA’s advisory limit of 400 ppt. (An advisory limit is not legally enforceable.)

Tests at three village wells in December of that year showed PFOA in the raw water at concentrations of up to 540 ppt.


Tracking contamination
Saint-Gobain owns two factories in the village, both near the Hoosic River. One of the plants, the one where Hickey’s father worked, is about 500 yards downstream from the village’s wells and water treatment plant. The company bought that plant from a previous owner in 1999; the plant has operated since 1956.

When it became aware of the village’s tests, Saint-Gobain forwarded the results to the EPA and tested groundwater beneath the plant near the water facility. The tests turned up more contamination, with one sample containing 18,000 ppt of PFOA.

It took time for officials to acknowledge the extent of the problem, however.
“PFOA is an unregulated substance,” said Hoosick town Supervisor Mark Surdam. “The local water passed every test. It took someone looking into it because of a tragedy in his family to find it.”

Surdam said it’s difficult to comprehend the extremely small concentrations at which PFOA is considered toxic.

“I’m trying to wrap my head around something that’s measured in parts per trillion,” he said. “It’s hard to believe something that small can cause that kind of problem.”

The Environmental Working Group likens one part per billion to mixing less than one teaspoon of a substance into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which holds 660,430 gallons. One part per trillion would be the same quantity in 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

PFOA, a completely synthetic chemical, was valued by industry because it is exceptionally stable and resists heat, water and grease. It was used in Teflon, fire-fighting foams and heat-resistant electrical wiring, among other applications. However, its stability means it doesn’t break down in the environment, and studies have shown that most people already have low concentrations in their bodies.

The EPA’s 400 ppt advisory limit was based on short-term studies of lab rats and mice.
“There are very few substances that are toxicologically active at such low doses,” said Robert Michaels, a consulting toxicologist who spoke at a public forum on the water crisis in January.
Research into PFOA’s effects on humans is ongoing. Some studies have suggested that a safe level may be only 1 ppt -- or perhaps less.


Slow to act
Although the highest concentration found in Hoosick Falls so far is the sample from the Saint-Gobain property, it’s by no means certain that the property is the only source of the pollution. Saint-Gobain began cutting back its use of materials containing PFOA after 2006, when the plastics industry agreed to phase out use of the substance. The company has said it no longer uses PFOA.

Environmental officials still aren’t sure how material containing PFOA was released – whether as a liquid, as dust, or some combination of both.

“Where is the pollution coming from?” EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck asked at the Jan. 14 forum, addressing hundreds of residents. “Can the plume be prevented from spreading farther? A very detailed study is needed.”

After Hickey discovered the contamination in 2014, he and Martinez went to the village board and urged it to warn the water system’s 4,500 users that the water was not safe to drink. But because the 400 ppt limit was only advisory, the board refused to do so.

Mayor David Borge called drinking the water “a personal choice,” and the state Health Department issued a “fact sheet” saying “normal use of the water” posed no health risks.
Hickey, Martinez and other concerned residents formed Healthy Hoosick Water Inc. to put pressure on the board, but still the village wouldn’t act.

“After multiple attempts, we went a different route,” Martinez said.
They enlisted David Engel, a lawyer specializing in environmental law with the Albany firm of Nolan & Heller. Engel also helped the group prod the EPA to become involved.

In November, the EPA issued a statement declaring the village’s water unsafe for drinking or cooking. The agency recommended providing an alternative source of potable water. Since PFOA appears to be very poorly absorbed by the skin, the EPA says short baths and showers pose little risk, but it recommends ventilating the bathroom so people don’t inhale the steam.
Around that time, Saint-Gobain offered to pay for bottled water for village residents – an offer later extended to anyone with a Hoosick Falls mailing address. Residents can get up to five gallons per person per day from the local supermarket, with more available if they can explain the need. Volunteers deliver water to people who are infirm or have no transportation.
“It’s an inconvenience, no question about it,” Borge said.

The mayor said bottled water is also being delivered to the village’s two nursing homes and to St. Mary’s Academy, a private elementary school. (Hoosick Falls Central School is several miles up the Hoosic River from the village and has its own wells. Tests have shown no contamination there.)


Finding a way forward
Although the village administration was initially reluctant to declare the water unsafe, it began researching ways to remove the PFOA. Tests in early 2015 showed that a granular activated carbon system would work. The estimated cost of renting a temporary system and designing and installing a permanent system was $2.3 million.

The village made major improvements to its water treatment system only eight years ago.
“We meet and exceed all of our compliance requirements,” Borge said.

The fact that PFOA isn’t regulated in drinking water added to the challenge. When the village went looking for state or federal funding, “we learned that funds are only available for systems that are not in compliance,” he added.

Saint-Gobain stepped in again and volunteered to cover the design, construction, testing, operation and maintenance costs of the filter system. A temporary system was delivered in January and is expected to be in service by the end of this month; the permanent system should be running by the end of October.

On Jan. 14, the state departments of health and environmental conservation asked the EPA to add Hoosick Falls to the National Priorities List of the federal Superfund program. Two weeks later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Hoosick Falls a state Superfund site, freeing state funds to begin a cleanup before the EPA completes its review.

The state Health Department issued an emergency regulation in January classifying PFOA as a hazardous substance, which will allow the state to set its own drinking water standard.
At the Jan. 14 forum, Enck said the EPA was committed to cleaning up the contamination.
“We know how to track down and remove or contain pollution,” she said. “This is a high priority, but it will take time. We are going to make sure it happens.”

The Superfund designation “won’t shut the town down,” she added. Its factories, including Saint-Gobain, will continue to operate.

Dina Silver-Pokedoff, a spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain Corp., said the company is committed to helping the village of Hoosick Falls with the situation. Apart from providing bottled water, the company is sharing information and working with the community to identify solutions, she said.
The Health Department is continuing to sample water in and around the village. Almost everyone outside the village has a private well, and tests have found contamination in some of those wells.


Questions and recriminations
People at the mid-January forum posed many questions: Was it safe to eat produce from gardens that had been watered with village water? Was it safe for them to donate blood? Could they swim in pools that had been filled from the village system, and if not, how were they to dispose of the water?

Surdam, a former real estate broker, said residents have asked him whether they will be able to sell their houses. He advises them to “hold on and give it some time.”

“This is a great little community,” Surdam said, adding that the water problem “is just an unfortunate thing. We’re going to have the best water in New York state when this is done.”
But the Times Union of Albany reported in January that several local banks have stopped writing mortgages and accepting refinancing applications in the village.

The village mayor has come under fire for his handling of the situation. Among other issues, he and the village board were criticized for hiring a public relations firm without public discussion. The firm they hired, Behan Communications of Glens Falls, is best known for handling a campaign in the 1990s and early 2000s in which General Electric Co. sought to avoid having to dredge the Hudson River to remove PCB pollution.

Borge said officials hired Behan Communications based on the advice of the village’s legal counsel, Fitzgerald Morris Baker Firth of Glens Falls, which is helping it negotiate with Saint-Gobain.

“They recommended getting a communications consultant to help us get the message out,” Borge said. The consultant “has been very helpful,” he added, especially in updating the village’s Web site to show what steps the village has taken to deal with the issue.
“We’ve been very proactive,” Borge said. “We want people to know that.”


Stalling a revival
The water crisis is a big setback for a village where several revitalization efforts have begun to blossom in the past couple of years. In 2014, Hoosick Falls and the town of Hoosick launched Hoosick Rising, an economic development and revitalization initiative.

“The village is looking at the economic impact” of the water contamination, Borge said. “We’ve asked for economic help from the state.”

Martinez, the doctor who helped bring the contamination to light, said Healthy Hoosick Water Inc. had two goals. The first was to have the water declared unsafe.

“The other part was to protect the village,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that we have some long-term fix and cleanup of the chemical. We hope that as the village moves forward, it includes some health monitoring.”

Research suggests that after exposure stops, the human body will begin to clear PFOA on its own. But the process is slow, with half the burden dissipating every four years.

“The health effects will continue to occur over the next 10, 20, 30 years,” Martinez said. “For people born and raised here, we may see health effects 30 years from now. Studies really need to be done to see what the numbers really are.”

To answer those questions, the Health Department plans to sample residents’ blood for PFOA starting this month. It also will review the state’s cancer registry to determine if the area’s cancer rates are in fact higher than average.

Is it possible that other chemicals -- ones no one has looked for yet -- could be contributing to the problem?

“That’s always a concern,” Martinez said. “The village has a lot of factory sites. That’s a big deal.”
Surdam said he’s heard of longtime residents coming forward with allegations of industrial chemical storage and disposal sites around the village. Some residents have contacted Engel’s firm and the firm associated with environmental activist Erin Brockovich to inquire about personal injury suits. Brockovich herself came to Bennington College at the end of January to discuss the Hoosick Falls case; she was accompanied by lawyers who offered their services to potential litigants.

“This stuff just does not go away,” Martinez said. “A filter is not appropriate as a long-term plan. What’s really needed is a safe spot to dig some new wells.”