Op-Ed: NY takes big step in the right direction

The following Op-Ed was published on January 12, 2020 in the Times Herald-Record. It was written by Maureen Cunningham, senior director for clean water at Environmental Advocates of New York.

NY takes big step in the right direction

A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call from yet another resident from another upstate New York community concerned about PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, in their drinking water. When I looked up the community’s publicly-available water quality report online, sure enough, I saw it there: 13 parts per trillion of PFOS detected in the town’s primary drinking water well.

The municipal well is located just a stone’s throw from the local fire station, which likely used and stored toxic firefighting foam historically made with PFOS. PFOS-laden firefighting foam, after all rendered Washington Lake in Newburgh undrinkable, caused the toxic white foam we saw floating down the Silver Stream back in April, and added multiple sites on Long Island to the state Superfund list, including the Hampton Bays Fire Department.

In December, New York state took an important step forward to stop this pollution at its source by phasing dangerous PFOS and other PFAS chemicals out of firefighting foam. Gov. Cuomo signed legislation that will restrict manufacturers of PFAS firefighting foam from selling and distributing it statewide within two years. Environmental Advocates of New York strongly supported this bill, sponsored by State Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Phil Steck, when it passed the New York State Legislature earlier in the year. The new law places New York among the top tier of states, along with Washington, that are rightly turning to PFAS-free alternative foams that are effective, available and already in use in places as big as Heathrow Airport.

While the new law phasing out PFAS in firefighting foam in New York is a big step in the right direction, we need more to protect our water supplies from these deadly chemicals. Though New York is finally moving ahead with drinking water standards for two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, new science is showing not only how harmful these chemicals are, but also that they can be detected and treated at significantly lower levels than what the state is getting ready to adopt. And while the state is gearing up to set standards for these two PFAS chemicals which we know have already poisoned New Yorkers’ water, we must think bigger and address more of the chemicals in this class like other states have begun to do. Tackling the whole class of PFAS chemicals, not just the two that the state is focusing on, is the next big task ahead.

When the resident with PFOS in her water called me, it was frustrating to have to tell her that New York’s drinking water standards are still not in place, and her town is therefore under no obligation to notify residents of PFOS in their water. Nor are they yet required to rectify the situation by filtering this toxic chemical from the public water supply. While we applaud the governor and the state legislature for making important strides in protecting our water with this new law phasing out PFAS in firefighting foam, we need to do much more to protect our water for the long haul.