The state followed federal guidelines in addressing industrial chemical contamination of a village's drinking water, but the Environmental Protection Agency gave "confusing, changing and inconsistent guidance," New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said Tuesday.
At a state Senate hearing on the state's handling of PFOA contamination of the municipal water supply in Hoosick Falls, Zucker said EPA guidelines on maximum levels of the Teflon-related chemical in drinking water are intended to trigger action to reduce it, not to warn against drinking the water.
Zucker made the comments when asked why his agency told Hoosick Falls residents no health impacts were expected from drinking municipal water even after tests showed levels of PFOA above 600 parts per trillion, well above the EPA's guideline of 400 ppt for short-term exposure.
He said his agency had a solution well underway when EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck "out of left field" told residents not to drink the water in December 2015.
In a phone interview later Tuesday, Enck said her agency had been advising state health officials since October 2015 to tell Hoosick Falls residents not to drink or cook with their tap water. When state officials declined to do so, saying the 400 ppt had a "built-in margin of safety," Enck issued a do-not-drink advisory to residents with full cooperation of EPA officials in Washington, she said.
Hoosick Falls residents have accused Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration of taking too long to warn them against drinking water contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which was used for decades in the manufacture of Teflon and other nonstick coatings but was phased out after being linked to cancer and other ills.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is holding St. Gobain Performance Plastics and its plant's predecessor, Honeywell International, liable for cleanup costs in the upstate New York community, including installing temporary filtration systems and developing a new water supply.
On Tuesday, DEC and the Health Department sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting that the agency reimburse New York state for any costs incurred for the Hoosick Falls cleanup not ultimately paid by the polluters, saying "changing, conflicting guidance" from EPA about PFOA resulted in "undue public confusion and the marshaling of unprecedented state resources."
The letter referred to the fact that EPA had set a level for short-term exposure to PFOA of 400 ppt in 2009 and issued a long-term exposure level of 70 ppt in May 2016. While the long-term exposure level was being finalized, EPA advised cleanup efforts in New York to set a target of no more than 100 ppt.
"EPA had a very transparent process over five years that the drinking water level was going to be revised," Enck said. "It's unclear why that would have resulted in the state of New York incurring additional costs."
Enck noted that the Superfund law says the polluter, not federal taxpayers, must pay for the full cost of cleanup.
The contamination was uncovered in 2014 by Michael Hickey, a resident concerned about his village's perceived high cancer rate. In emotional testimony at Tuesday's hearing, Hickey talked of his father's death from kidney cancer after 32 years of working at the village plastics factory. He said it took "a simple Google search" for him to learn about PFOA's link to kidney cancer, and it shouldn't have taken so long for officials to warn people about the chemical in their water.
"They were in the wrong," Hoosick Falls resident Laura Peabody said after Zucker's testimony. "They weren't on top of it in the beginning. They didn't have answers for us. They left us in a frenzy, and that's not OK."