Swimming in the crosscurrents of contamination
In light of a recent report, this is the second of a three-part series on Long Island’s drinking water contamination. This section details public officials’ efforts to ensure Long Island’s drinking water quality. The first section explained the risks of contaminants named in the report and explored how contaminants infiltrate our drinking water and bodies, and the third section will address how private citizens can protect themselves and fight for purer drinking water.
“Why are we, average citizens, having to beg for clean water?” asked Loreen Hackett. “Who would’ve thought that this was an issue that we would have to claw tooth and nail for?”
Hackett, who lives in a rural village upstate called Hoosick Falls, has sought to raise awareness of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination in her community. The well-documented effects of PFOA—which belongs to a class of resistant industry chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)—include effects on prenatal development and the immune system, thyroid problems, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, and kidney and testicular cancer.
On July 8, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s plans to set enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) allowed in public drinking water for PFOA, as well as those for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), its similarly toxic chemical cousin, and 1,4-dioxane. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regards 1,4-dioxane as a “probable human carcinogen” because of its likely effects on the kidney and liver.
On May 28, a New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) report urged the New York State Department of Health (DOH) to set MCLs for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane, which are emerging contaminants, or unregulated potential toxins identified by the EPA as likely to surface in water supplies.
The New York State Drinking Water Quality Council (DWQC), an independent entity tasked with helping the state assess emerging contaminants, recommended MCLs for PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane on December 18. Almost seven months later, New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has accepted these recommendations.
The proposed MCLs of 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS are “the lowest in the nation,” according to the press release, and the proposed MCL of 1 part per billion (ppb) for 1,4-dioxane is the nation’s first.
“We’re proposing the most protective levels in the nation for three emerging contaminants to ensure we are regularly testing and fixing water systems before they ever rise to a public health risk in any part of the state,” Cuomo said in the press release.
Cuomo also announced that $350 million is now available in grants for statewide water quality improvement projects to combat emerging contaminants. In addition, nine other communities on Long Island, including the Port Washington Water District, each received $3 million to fund water treatment system upgrades.
[cuomo photo – Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced on July 8 that $350 million is now available through the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act and the Intermunicipal Water Infrastructure Grant Program for municipalities with infrastructure projects that protect public health or improve water quality. ]
According to the press release, the proposed MCLs will be submitted for adoption after a 60-day public comment period expected to begin on July 24.
“New York State will continue to lead in the absence of federal action by ensuring all residents have access to clean drinking water and by investing in critical projects to assist municipalities in treating these emerging contaminants,” Cuomo added.
PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane were all found in Long Island drinking water above the EPA’s reference concentrations—non-enforced estimates of the maximum acceptable concentrations of toxic substances over a lifetime of exposure. An EPA web page cautions that reference concentrations, though based on health and risk assessments, “do not represent regulatory values or action levels and should not be interpreted as an indication that the Agency intends to establish a future drinking water regulation.”
“The EPA is dragging their feet on regulations,” Hackett said. “Their repeatedly saying that they don’t have enough information is absurd. It’s insulting to all of us exposed.”
“The agency is also moving forward with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for PFOA and PFOS,” wrote Elías Rodríguez, the Media Relations Branch Chief of the EPA’s Region 2, in a statement. “EPA will propose a regulatory determination for PFOA and PFOS by the end of this year and will work through the rulemaking process as expeditiously as possible.”
Although Hackett recognizes that “government is a slow process,” she is frustrated that the EPA still has not set MCLs, even after two decades of solid science, she said.
“The EPA is dragging their feet on regulations. Their repeatedly saying that they don’t have enough information is absurd. It’s insulting to all of us exposed,” she said. “They know there are cancer clusters. Why would they not act as quickly as possible?”
Dr. Jaymie Meliker—an associate professor of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University who studies exposure-disease relationships—noted that testing for human health effects takes an “extraordinarily” long time, which he thinks is part of a “broader point” about why industry chemicals pollute our environment. PFASs can also be found in a variety of consumer products, such as food packaging, stain repellents and non-stick cooking pans. They can also worm their way into cow’s milk and meat because of their presence in biosolids, or “sewage sludge,” used as a soil conditioner. Biosolids are nutrient-rich materials separated during the treatment of wastewater.
“This is the grand deal that we have made,” he said. “Not necessarily explicitly, but we’ve made it. We said, ‘You know what, give me my cell phone, give me my new technology…You don’t have to test for whether or not it’s going to cause me harm.’ So long as that’s the deal that we’ve made, there are always going to be emerging contaminants.”
Meliker added that he doesn’t think that government officials are ignoring drinking water contamination.
“They’re very much aware of the problem,” he said, “and they’re working on it.”
Hackett believes that members of Congress are paying attention to PFAS activists, citing a recent increase in bipartisan legislation calling on the EPA to strengthen public drinking water standards. Long Island’s congressional delegation made such requests at a news conference on June 18.
“The EPA shouldn’t need legislation to do their job,” Hackett said. “It shouldn’t be a political issue, but it’s turned into one.”
DOH spokesperson Erin Silk wrote in a statement on June 19 that “NYPIRG’s report is not an accurate characterization of drinking water quality because its assumptions are based on misinterpretation of current EPA standards.”
“Report findings are based on sampling previously reported on in 2016 under a program by the EPA known as the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule [UCMR] 3 and many water system have made adjustments since then,” she wrote.
The NYPIRG report, however, acknowledges its basis on federal data collected between 2013 and 2016.
Silk added that “the State has taken unprecedented action and made historic investments in protecting drinking water through the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act” of 2017, “which includes $200 million currently available to communities to manage emerging contaminants and an additional $500 million in this year’s budget.”
The year prior, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo donated $5 million to the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology (CCWT) at Stony Brook University in order to support its development of an advanced oxidation process (AOP) to treat 1,4-dioxane. On July 8, Cuomo announced that fourteen public water systems statewide are being awarded a total of $370,000 to develop new infrastructure projects to address emerging contaminants. The Hicksville Water District (HWD), for example, received a planning grant of $30,000.
“The EPA shouldn’t need legislation to do their job. It shouldn’t be a political issue, but it’s turned into one.” —Loreen Hackett
The HWD announced plans on June 7 to introduce an AOP pilot system “at no additional cost to taxpayers” in coordination with the CCWT after 1,4-dioxane was detected there at 34 ppb—97 times higher than the EPA’s reference concentration of 0.35 ppb, and 34,000 times higher than the recently proposed MCL.
“We believe emerging contaminants are the number one issue facing taxpayers and ratepayers across the region and are proud to take this critical step,” said Chairman Nicholas Brigandi of the HWD Board of Commissioners in a press release.
Brigandi added that the “District is entirely dedicated to protecting public health at all costs.”
“We work tirelessly every day to ensure we meet or exceed all federal and state regulations, and when new regulations are pending, it is our responsibility to make sure these regulations are set based on a foundation of sound science,” he said.
Dr. Arjun Venkatesan, the associate director for Drinking Water Initiatives at the CCWT, explained a potential downside of the AOP, which should break down 1,4-dioxane by use of a strong oxidant.
“When you add this oxidant, it can also react with other contaminants and other compounds present in our drinking water. It might be generating byproducts that we are not aware of,” he said. “There might be some byproducts that are even more toxic than 1,4-dioxane.”
In an interview with Anton Media Group, Brigandi and HWD Interim Superintendent Ken Claus expressed their awareness of this concern and indicated plans to test for other contaminants.
Town of Hempstead Press Secretary Michael Fricchione said that town also has funding “to plan and design treatment systems for the removal of 1,4-dioxane” as part of Supervisor Laura Gillen’s capital improvement plan passed earlier this year.
“The town is not standing idling by waiting for the EPA to act,” Fricchione wrote in a statement. “The town has also submitted grant applications to NYS for the construction of several treatment systems.”
Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth described her participation in efforts with local, state and federal representatives to protect aquifers and groundwater and “permanently dedicate funding…for regular water quality monitoring.”
“Safeguarding our drinking water here on Long Island has been a top priority to me as an elected official since I first took office,” she wrote in a statement. “It is imperative that we are proactive in protecting the public health of our residents.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) characterized New York in a statement as “a national leader in the fight to protect drinking water from threats posed by emerging contaminants.”
“DEC works with numerous entities, including drinking water providers and authorities, federal, state, county and local municipalities, and health departments to ensure Long Island’s groundwater is protected,” the DEC wrote in a statement. “New York State has dedicated significant resources to assess emerging contaminants (i.e., 1,4 dioxane and PFAS) with a special focus on Long Island’s sole source aquifer.”
Director Sarah Meyland of the Center for Water Resources Management at the New York Institute of Technology, also a member of the DWQC, noted that the DEC is a groundwater agency—not a drinking water agency. Dr. Laura Rabinow, who studies the absence of standards for emerging contaminants in drinking water, added that standards for groundwater are often “less protective because it’s assumed that groundwater is not directly going into a drinking water source,” though Long Island gets most of its drinking water from groundwater.
Meyland proposed creating an organization that would manage Long Island’s drinking water specifically.
“Right now, we have no plans to make things better on Long Island,” she said. “We have no one taking the steps to devise a way to better protect the drinking water supply on Long Island.”
Editor’s note: Due to production deadlines, the print version of this article does not include information from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement on July 8 regarding state action to address drinking water contamination. The online version has been revised to include this information.
Part three of this three-part series on water contamination will conclude in the July 17 issue.