US House probes response to toxic chemical in drinking water

by George M. Walsh, originally posted on July 7, 2016


ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — A congressional committee is asking state officials and federal environmental regulators for information about their responses to drinking water contaminated with the toxic chemical PFOA in an upstate New York village.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said in letters Wednesday to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy it is concerned about the time it took New York officials to take action on the findings in Hoosick Falls and a possible communication breakdown at EPA.

“The Committee is concerned that a sluggish response to the crisis in Hoosick Falls at the state and county levels caused residents to remain exposed to dangerous levels of PFOA for longer than was necessary,” according to the Cuomo Administration letter. “The Committee is looking into whether residents received misleading information that indicated the water posed no health risks, which exacerbated the crisis.”

The letter to EPA said the agency was aware of the contamination “in December 2014, but did not take any action until nearly one year later, in November 2015.” That was when Regional Director Judith Enck sent village officials a letter saying they should seek an alternate source of drinking water. Enck followed up with a December advisory that said the water wasn’t safe for drinking or cooking. Until then, state and village officials had told residents the water was unlikely to cause health problems.

Enck said she wasn’t aware of the potential problem until a local attorney brought it to her attention in November 2015.

The letters, first reported by the Times Union of Albany, were sent the same day the state Assembly said it will conduct hearings.

The contamination was discovered by residents concerned about spikes in certain cancers who brought those concerns to state and county officials in the summer of 2014 and then did their own testing, which revealed PFOA levels above the EPA’s advisory limit.

PFOA is a toxic chemical long used in the manufacture of Teflon and other nonstick coatings before it was phased out amid health concerns. The chemical has been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

New York environment regulators have signed agreements with New Jersey-based Honeywell International and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, part of a Paris-based global conglomerate, to pay for the investigation and cleanup of PFOA in public and private wells in the factory village near the Vermont border.

In a statement Thursday, a Cuomo spokesman said the state will cooperate with the committee request and, “We hope the end result is that Congress and the federal government act swiftly to prioritize and to implement uniform, nationwide regulations of PFOA and similar, currently unregulated contaminants.” He also disputed the committee’s characterization of the state’s response as “sluggish.”

EPA Region 2 spokeswoman Mary Mears said the agency has received the information request and will review it and respond to the committee.

The Rensselaer County villages of Hoosick Falls and nearby Petersburgh are in the midst of cleanup work for PFOA contamination.

About 2,500 residents had their blood tested for PFOA this spring. The state Department of Health said the average level was 23.5 micrograms per liter, compared with 2 to 6 micrograms in the general population. The agency said the blood level only tells about exposure, not the likelihood of health effects.

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