Discussions Continue Before Newburgh PFOS Filtration Plant Is Tested

Jul 5, 2018

A new filtration plant for the City of Newburgh awaits testing and operation. New York state paid for the plant it had constructed to filter a class of chemicals that includes PFOS. State officials expect testing to begin soon. But Newburgh’s city manager continues to have concerns.

The state’s filtration system was built in response to PFOS contamination found in 2015 in Newburgh’s main drinking water source, Washington Lake. While waiting for the new system, the city has been drawing water from the Catskill Aqueduct. In February, state Department of Environmental Conservation officials attended a public forum in Newburgh and said the testing would begin in early March. Now, DEC continues to work with the city to finalize the testing protocol to bring the new $25 million filtration system online. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos:

“Plant’s not on the back burner. We obviously spent an enormous amount of money to put that in place. We’re confident that the plant, once it’s operational, will absolutely protect the people of Newburgh,” says Seggos. “So it’s important for us to ensure that the public is made aware of it, and also that we work with them to address any of their concerns. And I certainly want to give the mayor a chance to work with us directly on this before we flip any switches.”

He mentions the mayor because the city is now served by a new one, Torrance Harvey, following the death of Judy Kennedy in April. In August 2016, the state designated Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site, after finding the source of PFOS contamination in Washington Lake was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. In June, the state sued six manufacturers of hazardous firefighting foam that contained the dangerous chemicals PFOA and/or PFOS, alleging that the foams used at military and civilian airports caused widespread contamination, including in drinking water, as in the case of Newburgh. Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino says without addressing the source of the pollution, though, the filtration system should not go into operation filtering water from Washington Lake, even with the diversion gate closed for Silver Stream to feed into Washington Lake. Silver Stream carries PFOS contaminated water from the air base.

“We’re going to continue to need to keep that gate closed. And, if some day, some day we’re able to use Washington Lake, we’re going to still be impaired because the quantity of water that comes out of the watershed from that area that we would normally receive from our diversion, we’re not going to be able to count upon. And so the quantity of water is going to be severely impacted. There’s a number of other concerns that we have right now with using Washington Lake,” says Ciaravino. “But, at the end of the day, we just want this problem to be cleaned up at its source. And we want our lake back. We want Washington Lake back.”

The state does not intend to begin filtration using water from Silver Stream, but Ciaravino says without it, Washington Lake ultimately will not be enough. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper.

“It’s important that the people of Newburgh have assurance that the system will work. We are trying to do an independent review of the operating procedures of the plant,” Shapley says. “And we can’t take our eye off the source of contamination which still needs to be stopped at the Air National Guard Based. And that, to date, is still flowing basically unabated.”

DEC and federal lawmakers continue to press the Department of Defense to take responsibility and pay for PFOS cleanup at the base. The state has found some of the highest concentrations of PFOS in outfalls from the base. The DEC’s Seggos says the state continues looking into how to treat the outfalls and whether to construct a system there.

Meantime, in late June, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released a draft report on a class of chemicals called Perfluoroalkyls, which includes PFOA and PFOS. Again, Seggos.

“The Drinking Water Quality Council that the governor convened with the legislature was tasked with exploring the appropriate MCL level, looking at all various sources of information, including what the federal government had,” Seggos says. “Obviously, this is an important document for us now. Now that it’s public, we have 800 pages to plow through and see how they arrived at those MCL levels and what bearing that might have on what levels the state sets, ultimately.”

Seggos notes that maximum contaminant levels mentioned in the report are in the 10-to-15 range rather than the Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory of 70 parts per trillion. Ciaravino says the report warrants further delay in putting Newburgh’s new filtration plant online. 

“We believe that the result of that study is going to suggest that the threshold of 70 parts per trillion is way too high and it actually needs to be much, much lower,” Ciaravino says.

Seggos anticipates it will take the federal government some time before finalizing anything in the draft report.