The following OPED was published June 14, 2016 in the Gotham Gazette.
Hoosick Falls Residents, and All New Yorkers, Deserve Water Contamination Hearings
Just imagine knowing that the water you are drinking is quietly making you sick. That it gave you or someone you love kidney cancer. That it took years to get your government to listen, then when you got its attention, your concerns were downplayed.
The bond between clean water and our health has been broken as we’ve heard stories state- and nation-wide about contamination. And like Flint, Michigan, there is a great disconnect between the suffering of Hoosick Falls, New York residents and the actions (or in this case, inaction) of their own elected officials. Hoosick Falls residents are just 30 miles from the steps of the state Capitol in Albany, but that may as well be a million miles given the response from the people elected and hired to protect them.
State lawmakers should hold hearings on what has happened in Hoosick Falls and the flawed state reaction to the water crisis there. Governor Cuomo and his top officials should welcome hearings as a chance to show New Yorkers that they want to get to the bottom of the issue, protect constituents across the state, and that they will not make the same mistakes again. There are some who disagree, but they are wrong, and here’s why:
Hoosick Falls residents deserve to know what happened, and who knew what and when. Further, lawmakers cannot ignore that what has happened in Hoosick Falls is not limited to just that village. Grossly inadequate chemical regulations on the books in New York, coupled with an increased hunger by state Senators to “cut the red tape” (which translates into cutting resources and powers for enforcement of our laws) means that it is only a matter of time before another community is fighting another unregulated chemical which has fouled their water.
Hoosick Falls is like many New York communities, particularly upstate, with an extensive manufacturing history.
For decades, industries were allowed to operate virtually unchecked as their operations endangered residents. For many years, contaminations of this kind were seen as affecting other communities home to larger companies. General Electric, for instance, spent decades dumping PCBs into the Hudson River, up until the late 1970s. Meanwhile, outside Syracuse, Onondaga Lake became known as the most polluted lake in America after a century of pollution from predecessors of the very same company associated with Hoosick Falls contamination: Honeywell.
A lack of regulations and enforcement created a false sense of security for many communities – after all, if a chemical isn’t regulated, it’s not tested. And if it’s not tested, then how does anyone know if it’s in their water and affecting their health?
In May, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new safety levels for PFOA and PFOS, many localities suddenly found themselves with unsafe drinking water. Of course, the water had been unsafe for many years – but if no one knew to test for it no one knew there was a problem.
Since the crisis in Hoosick Falls became public, PFOA has been found in the drinking water of nearby Petersburgh, a community also now home to a Superfund site. PFOS has also been found in the City of Newburgh’s water; water in Suffolk County also exceeds safety levels.
Which brings us to the realities of today, and the unique role that state legislators have in holding hearings - public reckonings that help clarify what can and should be done to help people. Currently, there are more than 80,000 untested and unregulated chemicals on the market. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has introduced emergency rules regulating PFOA and PFOS, but there are still tens of thousands of chemicals unaccounted for.
Resistance to legislative hearings is a head-scratcher. We’re pleased to hear that the Assembly has reopened the door to hearings; they should have occurred as originally planned following passage of the 2016-17 budget, which occurred April 1. This summer is now the time to follow through - no further delay is acceptable. These hearings should not be scuttled, the issues facing the people of Hoosick Falls and other municipalities must be seen in the light of day. It is legislators’ responsibility.
Hearings are a part of governmental checks and balances. Witness how rapidly the Senate rushed to hold a hearing on how to keep communities from imposing a fee to curb costly plastic bag waste. A public health crisis certainly deserves more proactivity than we have seen. Instead, the Senate is advancing a package of bills toward a vote that would exacerbate the very problems resulting from poor oversight and enforcement. In fact, one proposal forces agencies to enact a “one-in, one-out” practice when imposing new rules. In other words, when the DEC finalizes its PFOA rule, they would have to cut a regulation for the benefit of Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain, the companies responsible for the Hoosick Falls contamination.
The action that legislators take now will have enormous consequences for years to come. They must use their expertise in local affairs toward addressing their constituent concerns and public health hazards. The goal should be to consider contamination issues from across the state to connect the dots and create a game plan that modernizes our regulations and enforces our laws. New Yorkers must have confidence in both their drinking water and their elected officials.
Residents of Hoosick Falls and many other locales would be glad to hear that their elected officials are working throughout the summer to protect our water and our health. It’s an opportunity lawmakers should not pass up.