New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos was in Newburgh Tuesday. He visited the city’s water department to tour the future site of Newburgh’s new carbon filtration system. The system is being built in response to Newburgh’s PFOS drinking water contamination revealed last year. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne took a tour with Commissioner Seggos.
The public learned in May of PFOS contamination in Silver Stream and Washington Lake, Newburgh’s main drinking water supply. The city now draws water from the Catskill Aqueduct while a new carbon filtration system is in the works, and it's all being funded by the state. And DEC Commissioner Seggos was back to the construction site a second time.
“I was here may four, five months when we broke ground and wanted to see where we were in both the construction of the tanks and the new treatment system. It looks like they’re making great progress. I think we’re on target to complete this by October, which is where we thought we’d be. We spent an enormous amount of money and time on this right now,” Seggos says. “And this is a big issue locally. It’s certainly a big issue nationally now with PFOS getting into drinking water. So we’re here to make sure the project stays on track but also to look at the ways in which we can hold the Department of Defense accountable for everything that’s gone on. Everything you see here is because the federal government polluted the water supply.”
He says the cost has been in the tens of millions of dollars. Seggos, along with federal and local lawmakers, as well as environmental and community groups, have been calling on the Department of Defense to pay for the cleanup. In August, the state declared Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site after identifying it as a source of PFOS contamination in Newburgh’s drinking water supply. And a state investigation confirmed that the PFOS originated from firefighting foam used at the base. An Air Force Civil Engineer Center spokesman at the end of February said they were conducting site inspection sampling with a report expected to be complete by the fall. Again, Seggos.
“I think the issue with the DoD is less on the evaluation and investigation side and more so on are they prepared to step up and accept responsibility for what they’ve done here. And we’ve gotten mixed messages over the last, say, 10 months. I think the most recent message is they’re looking for legal loopholes to get out of responsibility,” Seggos says. “And we intend to keep this project on track, keep the water running, make sure that it’s clean and, ultimately, we’re going to challenge the federal government to make sure that they pay us back for their pollution.”
“Define ‘challenge,’ please,” says Dunne.
“Well, we’ll certainly be in court. I don’t see any way, unless the federal government does a 180 right now, I think we’ll be in court forcing them to pay up for our expenditures under superfund. We believe they’re the responsible party and they’ve got the liability here.”
Bob Vargo is with Arcadis, which the state hired to design and oversee construction of the new GAC, or granular-activated carbon, filtration system.
“Right now we’re standing at Ground Zero. Right now, we’re standing on the foundation of the GAC building, the G-A-C building,” says Vargo. “This building is going to have 18 vessels in it that’s going to go ahead and treat the water that’s going to come out of Washington Lake.”
Wayne Vradenburgh is Newburgh Water Department superintendent.
“It’s been a great, collaborative effort. Everybody’s been working together, meetings every single week and just, everybody’s been working together,” Vradenburgh says. “So it’s nice the commissioner comes down for the guys and sees the work that’s going on. They don’t stop. So they work, we worked right through the blizzard and all that.”
Meanwhile, military bases around the country are looking at potential PFOS contamination from firefighting foam, signaling that perhaps the Department of Defense is looking at the issue nationally rather than individually. Again, DEC Commissioner Seggos.
“I suspect that’s the case, Allison. I think what we have here is this is not just a one-off. We’ve heard maybe up to 600 different sites around the U.S. where the DoD is maybe responsible for PFOS contamination. So they may be making a larger policy statement by playing hardball locally with us on this case. They don’t want to have to be on the hook for every single instance of this nationwide. That’s not how you run things,” says Seggos. “It’s kind of weird. You have a Department of Defense that has been an early recognizer of something like climate change but then when it comes to pollution in drinking water now we seem them taking the exact opposite, they’re actually running for the hills. So we need them to take the more proactive and more productive approach.”
Officials from the state Department of Health joined Seggos and DEC staff for the site visit. Meanwhile, the state health department’s PFOS blood testing program continues, with two information sessions on the latest set of results scheduled for Thursday at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center.