HOOSICK FALLS, NY — A hearing by a state Senate panel that collected testimony and examined the water crisis on Tuesday lasted nearly 10 hours.
Senators questioned what specific steps environmental and health agencies took after PFOA was found in local water supplies.
State officials defended their actions, praised their staff, and criticized the federal government for its "shifting" and "confusing" guidance. The state's environmental and health agencies issued a joint statement Tuesday morning, demanding the Environmental Protection Agency reimburse the state for costs that polluters don't pay.
But numerous individuals who testified had a simple question: Why were residents allowed to drink the water for a year or longer after people in charge learned it had a chemical that several years before, had been linked to cancers and other diseases?
"It wasn't an amazing discovery, what we found here," said Michael Hickey, a resident who is credited with sounding the alarm in 2014. Hickey and others testified that the information from an independent science panel was easily accessible. "It was a five-minute Google search."
The state Department of Health knew there were "unanswered questions" when the man-made chemical was found in drinking water in 2014, said state Sen. Thomas O'Mara (R, C, IP-58th District). "I don't understand, short of a no-drink order, why there wasn't a warning sent out that said 'We don't know what these levels mean.'"
O'Mara, chair of the Senate's environmental committee, and state Sen. Kemp Hannon, who represents the 6th District and chairs the health committee, pointed to inconsistences in a fact sheet DOH issued in December that states, in part: "We [DOH] do not expect health effects to occur from normal use of the water."
"It was not as definitive as what it could have been," Hannon said.
Information from the EPA led to confusion, DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker said. A no-drink order for Hoosick Falls, which EPA Region II Director Judith Enck issued in late 2015, represented "a dramatic change in approach and policy... Everything was moving forward and suddenly, there was a shift that caused confusion," Zucker said.
But Enck disagrees with that categorization.
"There was no confusion," she told the Banner via conference call. But she said there was a disagreement between the state and the EPA, on whether or not residents should stop drinking the water.
Dozens of people gathered in the Hoosick Falls Central School on Tuesday for Senate hearings that delved into the water contamination from PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. The man-made chemical was used for decades when making Teflon products like tapes, foams, coated glass and wire insulation. In Rensaelar County, it's been found in public and private water supplies in: Hoosick and Hoosick Falls; Petersburgh; and Berlin. And in a new development, the DEC on Monday declared former municipal landfills in Berlin, Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, as potential Superfund sites after high levels were found.
The panel of seven senators collected testimony from 17 people who registered, a collection of state and county health and environmental officials, officials from affected municipalities, residents, a scientist, and Robert Bilott, an attorney who represented residents in lawsuits against DuPont.
Multiple senators said they regretted that EPA representatives did not attend. Also absent were representatives from Saint-Gobain and Honeywell International, the companies being ordered to clean up contamination in Hoosick, and Taconic Plastics, blamed for PFOA in Petersburgh and Berlin. EPA and Saint-Gobain did submit testimony.
The companies agreed to pay for water filters on private wells and on municipal systems; state and private contractors installed them. But residents testified they don't trust the government, the companies, and the water coming from their faucets.
"No one in my house drinks the water. Not even the dog," said Michele Baker, whose home in Hoosick Falls is served by a well. She said the water has only been tested once and she is worried that PFOA coats indoor plumbing. Baker is named in a class action lawsuit against Saint-Gobain and Honeywell,
Over 1,000 people have had their blood tested for PFOA. Emily Marpe of Petersburgh, and her two children, are among them. Marpe testified her level of 322 micrograms is higher than some factory workers.
"I'm not the same person I was seven months ago," she said.
Kathy Lingener of Hoosick Falls said she believes the village made a conscious decision to put the economic development above the health of its residents. She called the DOH staff who were dispatched to the village "disappointing."
"They were there with a script to read," she said. "That's not help. That's DOH covering their bases."
As the hearings were underway, DEC and DOH announced it had demanded the EPA reimburse the state for what it has spent if it's not paid by the companies. Zucker and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, in a letter to EPA Director Gina McCarthy, said the state has already spent $25 million and that officials expect those costs to rise above $75 million.
A "lack of clear direction and... differing direction caused our agencies great hardship in responding to the situation" and "caused great public concern, frustration and anxiety," the letter states.
Zucker testified for nearly two hours and repeatedly cast blame on the EPA. The agency studied PFOA for years before it issued a provisional health advisory of 400 parts per trillion (ppt) in 2009, he said. It was reduced to 70 this year.
"What confused us is that they never mentioned 'don't drink the water' above a certain level, and now they do," Zucker stated.
"It's a preposterous, desperate argument," Rob Allen, a teacher at the school who testified in the late afternoon, said about the DEC and DOH testimony. He testified with a Powerpoint presentation that traced a timeline using emails since 2014 released from information requests, and using photos of his now two-year-old daughter. Allen said that health officials "talked down" the dangers of drinking the water. He called the response time "reprehensible." He also criticized the timing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's first visit to the village: The Sunday morning after Saint Patrick's Day.
Enck, whose agency issued a letter to the senators, said the EPA does take its time when setting advisories. "But it's not fair to say the EPA caused confusion," she said. And DOH could "easily follow a health advisory changing from 400 to 70 ppt."
And Enck said she was "a little surprised that New York may already be throwing in the towel" in pursuing polluters. She noted the Superfund law requires polluters to pay for cleanup and related costs, not taxpayers.
Elected officials in the affected communities expressed frustration over the dispute between DOH and DEC, and the EPA. Hoosick Town Supervisor Mark Surdham and Hoosick Falls Village Mayor David Borge told senators they were concerned over how municipalities would cover the costs until the companies reimburse them. The municipalities have retained attorneys and communications specialists. Village office staff were given a payout of vacation time earlier this summer after not taking any time off.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.