5 Years After Hoosick Falls Water Crisis, Millions of NYers Still Don’t Know What’s in Their Drinking Water

For Immediate Release: December 8, 2020

Legislators Pledge Action if Dept. of Health Fails to Test for Unregulated Contaminants 

Albany – Five years have passed since the US EPA informed residents of Hoosick Falls, NY that their water was unsafe to drink because of toxic PFOA contamination. Yet in that time, the NYS Department of Health (DOH) has failed to implement a landmark law that was intended to prevent future situations like Hoosick Falls from happening by expanding drinking water testing for unregulated contaminants to millions of New Yorkers.

Should the Department fail to act, Senator James Skoufis and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried have committed to passing their bill (S.6625/A.7839) to jump start testing for unregulated contaminants during the upcoming legislative session.

For years, Hoosick Falls residents were in the dark about the cancer-causing chemical in their drinking water. Because the Hoosick Falls water system serves fewer than 10,000 people, the village was not required to test for a suite of unregulated contaminants, which included PFOA, in 2013. Had testing been required, Hoosick Falls residents would have been alerted to and protected from PFOA much earlier.

In response, Governor Cuomo’s administration promised swift action to close the testing loophole. In 2017, the Governor signed the Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act, which directs DOH to create and regularly update a list of unregulated contaminants that every water system, regardless of size, would be required to test for and notify the public if high levels were discovered. However, DOH has failed to follow through. Approximately 2,000 small water systems have not been tested for unregulated contaminants like strontium, chromium-6, or vanadium. 2.5 million New Yorkers still don’t know if there are chemicals in their water that could make them sick.

“Water is a human right and everyone in our state deserves to know what’s in their drinking water and to know that it’s safe,” said State Senator James Skoufis. “In the midst of a public health crisis, the importance of its safety has been compounded, as residents are hesitant to leave their homes. I have many small water systems in my district and those served by them should not be treated as second class citizens and be kept in the dark about their water. The legislation discussed today identifies a list of unregulated contaminants known to occur in New York, and gives the Department of Health 30 days to require all water utilities to begin testing for those contaminants. It is my sincere hope that DOH does the right thing and quickly enacts and enforces regulations to begin testing for unregulated contaminants, however, if DOH is not prepared to act with urgency, I stand ready to fight to protect public health with my colleagues in the Legislature.”

“We all have a responsibility to take care of the environment and the people who live here,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, “and that means having a commitment to a high quality water system and implementing the testing and remediation necessary to meet these standards in communities across the state. We need to monitor emerging science about dangerous chemicals and regulate all dangerous chemicals through a broader Emerging Contaminant Monitoring List as the legislature required in 2017.”

Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY said, “There is an urgent need for Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health to immediately implement testing for emerging contaminants. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of clean water to keep people safe and healthy. Science has shown that some emerging contaminants, like PFAS, can harm the immune system and reduce vaccine effectiveness. Millions of New Yorkers have already waited too long to learn what’s in their drinking water. We thank Senator Skoufis and Assembly Member Gottfried for their willingness to advance this issue and champion clean water in the State Legislature.”

Loreen Hackett, Hoosick Falls resident said, “There are lessons that can, and should, continue to be learned from Hoosick Falls. PFOA isn’t a ‘one-off’ toxic chemical in drinking water that can affect the health of our families. With PFAS alone, we know there are thousands in this chemical class, with many more now being linked to harmful outcomes. Testing for emerging contaminants to the State’s fullest capacity should be priority one to ensure contaminated water doesn’t, yet again, have devastating consequences.”

“Five years is a long time- a long time to live in limbo, to live in fear of the unknown- what will happen to my children, my grandchildren, my neighbors,” said Cathy Dawson, Hoosick Falls resident. “I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through what I did. And yet, the Department of Health still isn’t testing the drinking water of other small communities for chemicals. This could be harmful. There is something very wrong with a society that will not protect its citizens from polluters! It is way past time for action and New Yorkers need answers as to what’s in their drinking water!”

Tamsin Hollow, Newburgh Clean Water Project member said, “Testing for toxic contaminants is the first, most basic step toward ensuring all communities, large and small, are protected from toxic chemicals. Over four years after our water was found to be contaminated with PFAS, our primary water source in Newburgh remains hazardous to human health. Because we’re aware of that fact, we were able to switch over to an alternate, clean water source to protect our community while our watershed is remediated. To refuse to gather critical information about water quality is a death sentence for small communities. The DOH must test all communities regardless of size and give them a chance to protect the health of their residents.”

“For reasons that defy science and stumble towards dereliction of duty, NYS Department of Health refuses to protect the drinking water of rural communities from emerging contaminants,” said Dr. David Bond of Bennington College. “In 2017, Governor Cuomo gave the Department of Health an urgent and overdue task: implement statewide testing for dangerous new toxins known to be leaching into drinking water supplies across New York State. Four years on and we’re still waiting in the dark for DOH to take this directive seriously. Why is the Department of Health always missing in action when it comes to protecting drinking water from toxic chemicals?”

“Dangerous levels of PFAS have been detected at a Superfund site on the shores of Seneca Lake,” said Joseph Campbell, President of Seneca Lake Guardian, “And yet, surrounding communities like Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, and the Town of Hector have still not been required to regularly test their drinking water for a host of emerging contaminants that could make us sick. How are we still in the dark when there’s a Superfund site involved? We call on Governor Cuomo to immediately advise his DOH to implement the Emerging Contaminant Act, to publicly share all test results on both public and private water supplies in the communities where testing has taken place, and to educate residents about potential risks.”

Brennan Kearney, Dutchess County Legislator District 11 Clinton & Rhinebeck, said, “Safe-guarding the health of the residents of Dutchess County – where we have over 150 small water utilities, including in my district – is an important part of my role as a County Legislator. I am happy to stand with local advocates and environmental organizations in calling for legislation at the state level to expand drinking water testing for unregulated contaminants to insure that the health of all residents of New York State is protected.”

“Testing is an essential first step to identifying and understanding harmful contamination,” said Victoria Leung, Associate Staff Attorney with Riverkeeper. “It is time to protect the health of New Yorkers and prevent repetition of the water crises that still affect the communities of Hoosick Falls and Newburgh to this day.”

Liz Moran, environmental policy director for NYPIRG, said, “Every New Yorker, regardless of where they live, deserves the basic right to know what’s in their water. The longer the Department of Health takes to establish a list of emerging contaminants in New York, the longer communities will be needlessly exposed to potentially toxic chemicals in their drinking water. The goal of this law was to prevent future tragedies like what happened in Hoosick Falls, yet 5 years after their crisis came to light, the Department continues the same patterns of delay after delay. NYPIRG thanks Assemblyman Gottfried and Senator Skoufis for their leadership on this issue, and we urge New York to finally act on this nation-leading law.”

“The Cuomo administration has failed its obligation to protect New York’s drinking water. The Department of Health has neglected its legal mandate to test for toxins in our water. What we don’t know could be poisoning us,” said Eric Weltman, a Brooklyn-based organizer with Food & Water Action.