Undrinkable Water—Hampton Bays, NY Edition

Another day, another incident about contaminated water jeopardizing public health.

I recently received a notice from my water district in Hampton Bays, New York, stating that another of its drinking water wells was contaminated with two known carcinogens—PFOA and PFOS—which are industrial chemicals used to make everyday products like coating for popcorn bags and food containers, fire-fighting foam, and Teflon. The district said that it took the well out of service, but the notice did not mention the risks to its customers who had been drinking the contaminated water from that well.

This is not an isolated incident in our community. Last year, the district shut another well for the same reason. I can’t help but be concerned whether the remaining wells are safe for my family and our community.

Earlier this year, NRDC supported New York’s $2.5 billion water infrastructure program. This program is intended to, among other things, infuse investments in gray and green water infrastructure; step up testing of drinking water, especially for small drinking water systems; replace lead service lines; and address Long Island’s cesspool and septic system problems.

NRDC also supported the creation of the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council—embedded deep in this year’s budget bill (page 107) on health issues—which is supposed to provide oversight for drinking water actions around the state. The mission of this Council was to learn from all the crises affecting drinking water, not only on Long Island, but all across the state, and step up oversight and regulation of chemical contaminants placing our lives at risk—in other words, take action.

Specifically, the Council is charged with recommending appropriate levels of contaminants in our drinking water and to weigh in on the “form and content” of public notifications that districts provide to their customers when contamination is found. 

Here’s the fine print for Hampton Bays: The district informed us that the federal EPA advisory level for what exposure is “safe”—70 parts per trillion (ppt)—has a “margin of protection” against health effects that is large enough to protect us. The bad news is that the most recent levels of contamination reached 85.8 ppt. And the levels set by other states are much lower—Vermont (20 ppt for PFOA & PFOS combined), New Jersey (40 ppt for PFOA, with a proposal to lower it to 14 ppt), and Minnesota (35 ppt for PFOA and 27 ppt for PFOS). In other words, the “margin of protection” essentially has a cone of uncertainty that provides little comfort for anyone drinking PFOA- and PFOS-laden water.

The district’s notice to its Hampton Bays customers never mentioned the health effects that can occur from these chemicals. Rather, it downplayed the contamination and didn’t identify any options for its customers to take to respond to the contamination. Although the district said that it took the well out of service, that’s what it did last year with another well—and yet the contaminant appeared in the next well. The community needs to know this information immediately so that we can make choices to protect ourselves and our families from the impacts of these toxic chemicals in our drinking water.

So where did the water district get the notion that it could provide comfort to its customers based on the margin of protection? A similar series of events played out in the village of Hoosick Falls, about 30 miles from the state Capitol. After residents learned of drinking water contamination (well over a year later), the State Department of Health issued a fact sheet in December 2015 underplaying the severity of the crisis and the health risks posed to those who had been drinking the water. And that was when EPA’s advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS were each at 400 ppt, not the combined 70 ppt in the advisory that EPA issued in May 2016. Hampton Bays’ notice underplaying the contamination is eerily similar.

All the district needed to do was to look to the USEPA for guidance. EPA advises water districts on what to include in the notice of PFOA/PFOS contamination:

This notice should include specific information on the risks to fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed and formula-fed infants from exposure to drinking water with an individual or combined concentration of PFOA and PFOS above EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. In addition, the notification should include actions they are taking and identify options that consumers may consider to reduce risk such as seeking an alternative drinking water source, or in the case of parents of formula-fed infants, using formula that does not require adding water.

Clearly, the Hampton Bays notice falls short of providing the EPA’s recommended information for customers, and no other district should follow suit. 

The NYS Drinking Water Quality Council is off to a very slow start. Only last Friday did the Governor announce the appointments to the Council. Its first meeting is on Monday, October 2, at Stony Brook University.

Creating the Drinking Water Quality Council was supposedly the State’s response to what happened in Hoosick Falls. It was meant as a means of ensuring that what happened there did not happen anywhere else. But it has happened again, hundreds of miles from Hoosick Falls.

The Council needs to get to work on these issues. The clock is ticking, and every new crisis puts New Yorkers at risk of bearing the burden of life-impacting consequences due to the actions of the state and local water districts. 

About the Authors

Joan Leary Matthews

Senior Attorney and Director, Urban Water Management, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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