After Governor Andrew Cuomo slew a giant sea creature with his bare hands over the weekend, his administration went fishing for excuses on Tuesday, claiming it is not to blame for the environmental crisis in the upstate town of Hoosick Falls.
State officials defended the administration's response in testimony at a state Senate hearing on the handling of the crisis, which began last November with the revelation that the Hoosick Falls water supply contained dangerous levels of the suspected carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid, better known as PFOA.
According to a Politico report, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker blamed the federal Environmental Protection Agency for the crisis in his testimony, complaining that the EPA had confused state officials and unnecessarily freaked out the residents of Hoosick Falls by warning them not to drink the contaminated water.
Regional EPA administrator Judith Enck challenged the state's narrative that its inaction was a result of confusion about the safety of Hoosick Falls' drinking water. According to Enck, Health Department officials told the EPA they were not concerned about PFOA levels that exceeded the EPA's recommended safety standard of 400 parts per trillion because they believed the EPA standard had a built-in margin of safety.
"The state Health Department was not at all confused about what the EPA numbers were, but they were unwilling to alert the public about the problem," Enck told Gothamist. "They were not willing to err on the side of caution."
Zucker and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos also on Tuesday sent an angry letter to the EPA expressing similar complaints. They demanded that the agency pick up the bill for cleanup and remediation, which the state estimated could rise as high as $75 million over the next decade.
Enck submitted her own letter to state legislators outlining the EPA's response to the crisis.
Perfluorooctanoic acid is used in a range of consumer products, including certain food containers, textiles like Gore-Tex, and the non-stick coating Teflon. Residents of Hoosick Falls have said exposure to PFOA has led to elevated rates of cancer and thyroid disease in the town. The contamination has been linked to an industrial plant operated by the firm Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, as well as a Honeywell International plant that is no longer active.
As Politico previously reported, the Health Department knew about potential PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls as early as 2014, but did not act on this information. Even after the EPA notified the mayor of Hoosick Falls that water in the town’s taps was not safe to drink in November 2015, the Cuomo Administration continued to maintain that residents would not suffer ill health effects from ingesting it. A December 2015 fact sheet issued by the Health Department and the DEC stated, “Health effects are not expected to occur from normal use of the water."
It was only in late January of this year that Cuomo took action, declaring Hoosick Falls a state Superfund site and ordering the Health Department and DEC to conduct thorough testing of the town's water and install filtration systems to remove PFOA from the water supply.
"I do believe our citizens were advised incorrectly to consume water that was unsafe for at least for 12 months, local doctor Marcus Martinez told Politico.
The Department of Health declined Gothamist's request for comment.