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


Editorial September 2016



No apology, many excuses on village’s water crisis

The hearing lasted nearly 10 hours, but on the questions that mattered most, it seems straight answers were in short supply.

After nearly eight months in which local citizens had called for a state legislative inquiry into the handling of the Hoosick Falls water crisis, the moment of truth finally arrived. On the next-to-last day of August, the state Senate convened the first of three promised hearings into the contamination of the village’s water supply with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a toxic chemical once used in local manufacturing plants.

There is little doubt that the contamination came from local factories, and the companies that now own those properties have accepted responsibility and are paying for water filtration systems and other steps to clean up the contamination.

The bigger question is whether the government officials who were supposed to be safeguarding public health and the environment should have acted more proactively to search for PFOA – and to stop the public from drinking the Hoosick Falls water after the contamination was discovered.
PFOA wasn’t among the list of contaminants for which the village water system was required to test. So no one looked for it until a private citizen, alarmed by what he believed was a high rate of local cancer deaths, commissioned his own tests of local tap water in August 2014. The tests turned up PFOA in concentrations of more than 500 part per trillion – well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit of 400 ppt.

But after these findings were brought to the attention of local and state officials, the state Health Department continued to insist for more than a year that Hoosick Falls water was safe to drink. Nothing was done to protect the public until the EPA intervened at the end of 2015 and said flatly that the water wasn’t safe.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker testified at length at the Senate hearing but offered no apology or regrets over the state’s handling of this mess. Instead, he blamed the EPA.
In a letter sent to the EPA on the day of the hearing, Zucker and state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos even went so far as to demand that the federal government foot the bill for $75 million in expenses related to the water crisis. The EPA was responsible, they said, because it had taken “no less than three different positions regarding PFOA.”

Really? Well, it’s true that the EPA did later lower its advisory level for PFOA from 400 ppt to 100 ppt – and then 70 ppt for long-term exposure.

But here are the facts as we know them: At the time PFOA was discovered in the water in 2014, the EPA had been advising since 2009 that drinking water with concentrations above 400 ppt should not be consumed. The initial tests of Hoosick Falls water showed concentrations above that level. When EPA officials were made aware of the contamination, they argued that people in Hoosick Falls needed to be told, but the state actively disputed the idea that the water was unsafe.

As a defense of the state’s actions, “the EPA confused us” is simply pathetic.
The EPA’s recommendations on PFOA were advisory. State officials were free to do their own research and set their own safety thresholds if they saw fit. Vermont, a much smaller state with far fewer resources than New York, did just that and set a safety limit of just 20 ppt for drinking water.

Maybe if New York’s officials had been a little more proactive – and a bit less focused on blaming others – they might have done the same thing.


September 2016 Editorial Cartoon


Work for the Observer!