Graves Registry: Hoosick Falls: A very old story


It is difficult to imagine what residents of Hoosick Falls, N.Y. must be experiencing. I'm not just referring to the incredible inconvenience of having no direct access to water after it was affirmed that the village's water supply had been contaminated with a toxic, manmade chemical called PFOA. I'm not just referring to the fact that two of the major banks in the region won't even consider making loans on any properties in the area. Residents in the village, some of whom have probably worked their entire lives to pay off mortgages, have seen their property values being reduced to that of a tract of sand in the Gobi Desert.

The amount of time that the chemical has been polluting the village water system hasn't been determined, but it is probably safe to assume that it has been a number of years and perhaps even decades. The inconvenience/property values aspects pale beside the questions that must be haunting the minds of citizens concerning the effects that consuming the water may have on their own health and on the wellbeing of the people they care about.

Suspicions that there was a problem with the water have evidently existed in Hoosick Falls for a long time. Neither the state nor local officials were concerned enough by the abnormally high rate of cancer in the village to do anything more than issue reassurances that the water was safe to drink. It should have occurred to someone a long time ago that, when politicians and bureaucrats feel the need to verify that something is safe, there is a very strong possibility that someone with fewer ties to vested interests has suggested that it is not.

The final damning evidence that village water was tainted with dangerous levels of PFOA was not even determined in this country. A man who lost his father to cancer sent a sample to be analyzed by a laboratory in Canada. And, in a revelation that was as startling as witnessing the sun rising in the east, New York state officials placed the blame for the contamination upon Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, currently a major employer in the area, and Honeywell International, the previous owner of the same site.

A spokesperson for Saint-Gobain, in a line lifted verbatim out of corporate America's When Disaster Strikes Handbook, reiterated the company's long-standing commitment to safety issues. A former employee at the Saint-Gobain plant, however, stated that he had serious concerns about residue resulting from the cleaning of the "scrubbers" placed on the factory's smokestacks finding its way into the groundwater. For 15 years prior to the installation of the scrubbers, the pollutants went unimpeded into the air, settling down on the community like a lethal snowfall.

The residents of Hoosick Falls are now being subjected to the onset of the blame game and its inevitable offshoot, the who-knew-what-and-when game. It is evident now that concerns about the safety of the village water were brought to the attention of Gov. Cuomo's office, to the offices of Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer, and to Rep. Chris Gibson, as well as a number of state representatives for the district. None of them initiated any substantive action until the Canadian lab results were made public. The excuse du jour seems to be the EPA's ambivalence as to just how toxic PFOA consumption is to human beings. Meanwhile, of course, while officials dither, deflect, and dodge, people are drinking, cooking, and bathing in the contaminated water.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. It's a very old one in the United States: Big, powerful, international corporations wreak their havoc and then wring their hands and proclaim their determination to make everything right after they are caught.

The White Star Line rejected the original plans to install 48 lifeboats on the Titanic because they weren't aesthetically pleasing on their sleek new superliner. The American-owned shipping line opted for less than half that number and we all know the end of that story. Johnson and Johnson, the so-called "Family Company," actually set funds aside to settle the lawsuits they knew would be inevitable once Risperdal, a drug they were actively pedaling to pediatricians, had its devastating effect on young people. The brain trust at General Motors decided that it was cheaper to pay off lawsuits than to recall and fix faulty ignition switches in cars that were regularly killing people.

They all reiterated their determination to make things right. That's a neat trick, making the deaths of people that by now must number in the tens of thousands right.

— Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist


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