Military Environmental Disaster: Newburgh Forced to pay NYC 170,000 Monthly for Water
It’s a city’s worst nightmare.
The primary water supply for Newburgh New York was not just contaminated, but poisoned with dangerous levels of a chemical known as PFOS. The Official name is: Perfluorooctane Sulfonate. (Newburgh is an hour and a half north from Manhattan)
Whether you feel this is Deja vu, with Flint Michigan, what we do know is two years later, the Newburgh problem hasn’t been resolved. The water remains unusable and Newburgh officials have decided to sue the Federal Government. This is the on-air story we did at Verizon FiOS TV News/RNN.
To control aircraft fires, the military stored and trained with PFOS-containing foams
I stood there looking at the beautiful pristine body of water, that supplies the entire City of Newburgh. Twenty minutes prior, I sat down outside at a picnic bench at an area known as Plum Point with Dan Shapley. Dan works for the environmental group, Riverkeepers, and you can hear the entire interview by clicking here. The bottom line of what Dan told me:
“In Newburgh’s case, the problem was the use of firefighting foam at the air national guard base, and that firefighting foam, very good at putting out hot jet fuel fires, but also contains a number, a mix of these chemicals that has now left the base, and entered the water system reaching the Hudson and which contaminated the city’s drinking water.”-Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
If it wasn’t so cold, I would have loved to go in the water at Plum Point. Afterall, there were a few grills there, and grilling is what I love to do, and be near water. For me It just doesn’t get any better. But then I thought about why I was there. To do a story about the environment being poisoned. All of a sudden, I had second thoughts about going into the water. I said: “Dan, we’re here at Beautiful Plum Point. Please tell me that this area has not started to be contaminated?”
“Unfortunately because the Department of Defense for 2-plus years, 2 and a half years, has not heeded the call to stop the pollution flowing off of its base, that pollution is thankfully by-passing the City of Newburgh’s reservoir, but where it’s going, is down through a series of creeks, here, to the Hudson River. And this beautiful spot, this iconic landscape, a place where fishermen come to catch striped-bass is where the population is flowing, currently, and has been for some time.”-Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
So…. “Plum Point” which is almost as pretty and scenic as Niagara Falls, right up past Buffalo NY, or Vancouver Canada in the summertime, is toxic I asked Dan:
“You and I sitting here right now, we’re not at risk, no! But what we don’t know, is what that pollution is doing to the fish. We don’t know whether, or how badly contaminated the fish may be because of this pollution. We know this is also just one source of this type of contamination. These chemicals are widely in use. In a number of different products. We know because there in food packaging for instance. In a lot cases, that there is some amount of it that comes through us, out through sewage treatment plants. Any water-way will have some of this in it. But we know this is a particular source that we need to address to protect Newburgh and also to protect the Hudson River.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
“So Newburgh gave up on reopening its contaminated water supply?
“Newburgh has not given up on that. The State of New York has not given up on that. But there are concerns right now. The Reservoir’s not being used currently. The City of Newburgh is able to tap into the City of New York’s water supply, which is this wonderfully protected system of reservoirs that serve half the State of New York, the whole city by population. The long-term solution has to include stopping the flow of pollution from the air national guard base, so that the reservoir has enough clean water and also protecting the water, from other types of pollution, urban run-off, storm water, road salts, things that are more of a traditional nature that are still of concern for a drinking water supply.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
“What is PFOS?”
“PFOS is one of a family of chemicals. There’s about 4,500 of these that have been manufactured and used 40- 50 in our country. As we learn more about this chemical family, we learn that many of them, if not all of them, are toxic and cause health effects. There virtually indestructible. So once their out in the environment, they are there forever essentially. They defuse in water very well so that once there in water there are just there, and they flow with the water and stay with the water.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
OK. so I though this “PFOS,” is good at putting out the fires, but how does it get in the environment?”
“In this case it was training exercises primarily and spills. So it came in a concentrated form that was then diluted for use in training exercises and to put out fires but unfortunately there were at least a couple of significant spills which contaminated the ground water, got into the ground water, and then that is then feeding out through the base’s stormwater system and into the streams.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
The scary part. Firefighting foam has been used not just at the Stewart Air force base in Newburgh NY, but military bases around the country.
PFOS is associated with cancer, low infant birth weight and other health problems.
Newburgh City Leaders decided not to reopen their reservoir despite the state-funded construction of a $22 million system designed to filter out the toxic chemical, and instead pays the City of NY for its’s water at an average of about $170,000 a month. Dan put things this way:
“The Reservoir’s not being used currently. The City of Newburgh is able to tap into the City of New York’s water supply, which is this wonderfully protected system of reservoirs that serves half the State of New York.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
Our conversation continued: I asked if it was accurate that the level of PFOS in Newburgh’s water is two-times, the contamination rate, two times of what the EPA recommends?
“It’s a little hard to answer that question because it has been a moving target of what the safe threshold is, what we should think of as Safe. I think unfortunately the science is pointing more and more about there not really being a safe level. That you can’t say this much is ok, but this much is too much. It’s like lead in that respect. You know that no exposure to lead is healthy. It could have effects on the developing brain, but we also know that it’s everywhere, and we maybe can’t limit it pass a certain point. So I think some of these PFOS are in that similar state, where we just know there is a lot of health effects that can result from these, that you should not be exposed to them. The level in drinking water is also a moving target, so the State of New York is right now considering updating that level, to say what the safe threshold is, and they have been a little slow about it, and we are arguing for them to meet before the end of this year, before December 25th, when everyone goes on vacation, to have a meeting and set those new levels, make recommendations that will protect people around the state.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
So what’s the problem? We spoke to you a few years ago. Contamination starts in Newburgh, but why hasn’t the State of New York been able to get a hold of this?
“The State of New York has taken a number of really important actions, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that they haven’t acted. They have done an extensive investigation to understand where the source of contamination is at the international guard base. Built a Filtration plant for the city to use, arranged for alternate drinking water supplies that the city does not have to pay for, getting that water from NYC instead, making available free blood testing to understand what the exposure has been to the people of Newburgh. So there has been a number of really important things that the State has done. Where the hangup seems to be is the ownership and operation of the Air National Guard Base. The land is owned by the State of New York. The Air National Guard is controlled by the State of New York but it’s the Department of Defense work that they are essential doing. The Department of Defense clearly has taken verbal responsibility for this contamination but the action is lagging so we need the Federal Government, the Department of Defense to take those actions.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
“What has the Department of Defense said in response?”
“Well the Department of Defense was largely absent from any discussions with the community for two and a half years. Just in the last month, they finally came and hosted a meeting to talk to the community and start to set up an advisory board that will include community members so there can be a feedback loop, which is a good step. Two and a half years late, but it’s a good step. They have verbally said that they want to stop that contamination from flowing off the base, and they want to make it a high priority. We need to see those words translated into action. We keep hearing excuses about the bureaucracy. Who owns this? Who has land access to that? Who’s jurisdiction ends here, and starts there! They need to be leaders and clear that logjam and get the work done.” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
According to the lawsuit, Newburgh argues the military knew back in 1987 that drinking water wells had been polluted. Think about that for a second. However local New York officials do credit the state with stepping up over the last two years.
First with an extensive investigation. The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health that confirmed high levels of PFOS at the air base and airport, and contamination that extends to private wells. They also credit New York State with arranging for alternate drinking water supplies, and:
Free Blood Tests for find out exposure for Newburgh Residents
The Department of Defense just recently in the last month came in and met with local leaders, agreeing to set up an advisory board including community members.
I concluded my conversation with Dan Shapley this way:
“Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you feel the need to say?”
“I would say that separately from the toxic contamination from the base, this issue of general degradation of the watershed that supplies the water supply is an equally important issue and we are working on a very traditional development project, it’s a strip mall essentially. But it will impact and has impacted, one of the two streams that feeds the reservoir. So we need to protect that water supply in the long term. Not just by stopping the contamination from the Air National Guard Base, but restoring health to the streams that feed the reservoir so that the City of Newburgh has a good clean local water supply for generations to come” -Dan Shapley/Riverkeepers
To the credit of the Air Force, they are becoming pro-active on this issue
The Air Force released this full statement to me. It comes from the AF Installations spokesman, Frank Smolinsky.
“Air Force Assistant Secretary John Henderson and his Office of Secretary of Defense counterpart, Assistant Secretary Robert McMahon, recently traveled to Newburgh to assess the current situation regarding contaminated drinking water resulting from Stewart Air National Guard Base use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam and its effect on Lake Washington. The Secretaries wanted to ensure they understood firsthand the challenges facing the affected residents of Newburgh and answer any questions residents had about how the Air Force intends to address those challenges. The Secretaries spent the day visiting with senior representatives of the 105th Airlift Wing at Stewart Air National Guard base and met with local officials and local residents.
Our goal is to establish the partnership needed to find solutions for the long term restoration of the environmental challenges linked to the activities of the State of New York’s Stewart Air National Guard Base. We are working in close coordination with our federal inter-agency partners, including the EPA, FDA, ATSDR, and USDA to address this National Problem. We want to ensure the local community knows the Air Force and the Department of Defense is making this effort a priority.
In an effort to address contamination at Stewart Air National Guard Base over the last two and a half years, the Air National Guard replaced all of their fire-fighting foam product in response vehicles and hangar with a PFOS free product and which only containes trace amounts of PFOA. Also, the Air National Guard stopped discharging any foam for routine nozzle testing from fire trucks.
With regard to addressing the contaminated areas, the Air National Guard contracted four (4) phases of a study under the authorities of Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) to assess levels of PFOS/PFOA in soils, groundwater, and surface water in order to inform decisions on how best to remediate the PFOS/PFOA contamination. The Air National Guard is just starting phase 4 of this study.
Finally, the Air National Guard formed a multi-agency working group with 105th AW, New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and airport landowners New York State Department of Transportation (NYDOT) to assess the storm water discharges and move toward solutions.
The Air National Guard will continue to work with the Administration and Congress to coordinate for the authorities and resources required to take meaningful action for environmental restoration under the CERCLA process. The health and safety of our Airmen, our workforce, our families, and the communities in which we serve is our top priority. To that end, Secretary Henderson focused on addressing these issues and supporting the community. He committed to a follow up visit within 6 months to check progress and listen to any concern from the community and elected officials on Air Force efforts.” -AF Installations spokesman, Frank Smolinsky
I’ll never forget when as a Radio Journalist years back, I flew with the military, from the Air Force base in Newburgh on a C-130 Cargo plane to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Who could have ever predicted, what was to come at the Newburgh base?
However Newburgh residents believe after two years of dealing with an environment disaster, that they may finally be on the right road to recovery of being able to drink local water. Only time will tell.
Political Anchor and Newsman Dominic Carter discusses Child Abuse, Child Sexual Abuse, Foster Care, and Mental Illness as a Keynote Speaker. Dominic Carter delivers his testimony at Churches all over the country. Click here to follow Dominic on Twitter.