Airport Contamination Causes Unsafe Newburgh Water

Airport Contamination Causes Unsafe Newburgh Water

June 17, 2020 | Environmental Litigation

Remediation struggle

The battle to clean up its water supply has kept the city of Newburgh, NY, at high alert for close on a decade.

Long contaminated by PFOS and PFOA runoff from nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base and Stewart International Airport, this tragic situation highlights the need for effective watershed protection.

Back in the early 2010s, toxic perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) contamination was identified in Newburgh’s drinking water by an EPA study of emerging contaminants.

A persistent component of firefighting foams used for training purposes at airports and military bases, this bio-accumulative compound spreads rapidly throughout the food chain, at rising concentrations.

Contamination detected in 2014

In 2014, PFOS was detected in Lake Washington, which supplies the city with drinking water.

At 170 ppt, this was below the limit of 400 ppt recommended by the EPA at that time.

However, when this ceiling was raised to 70 ppt in 2016, the city declared an emergency.

The source of this contamination was confirmed as the firefighting foam used for training and emergencies at Stewart Air National Guard Base (already a State Superfund site), released through stormwater discharges and possibly other routes.

A state-funded hookup to the Catskill Aqueduct provided a temporary water source for the city, while a new filtration system was being designed and built.

More Contamination detected in 2016

The Newburgh drinking water crisis worsened in May 2016, after other chemical contaminants – per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – were found in its primary reservoir: Lake Washington.

Another contaminant – Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – was found at levels above the EPA ceiling of 70 ppt, also used in the aqueous firefighting foam used by the International Guard.

All these pollutants were draining freely into Recreation Pond and then into Silver Stream, which in turn runs into Washington Lake.

Steered by the lessons learned from this situation, Riverkeeper – an influential watchdog NGO – launched its Source Water Protection project.

This urges a more proactive approach to watershed protection: contamination source remediation; water source protection; reservoir restoration; and prompt responses to public health concerns.

Riverkeeper: A non-profit advocacy organization set up to protect the Hudson River Valley and the watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of people in New York City and surrounding areas.

Mission: To protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River …

●     Shielding public resources (like watersheds) from abuse, it works through grassroots engagement and empowerment, science, advocacy, legislation and litigation.

●     Its actions resulted in US citizens being endowed with legal standing in environmental disputes.

●     Starting out in 1966 as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association (HRFA), this blue-collar coalition has inspired similar Waterkeeper groups in 46 countries all over the world.

Scorecard: Helping communities understand the extent to which their water supplies are protected, the Riverkeeper Drinking Water Source Protection Scorecard provides input underpinning requests for State and federal funding.

New York Superfund Act

After the Department of Defense study found that water from the Stewart Air National Guard Base was contaminating Newburgh’s primary water supply with toxic chemicals, the State launched a drive offering free blood tests to its 28,000 residents in 2016, as well as anyone else who might have been exposed to PFOS.

An emergency decree was issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) declared perfluorooctane sulfonate a hazardous substance, thus allowing the State to remediate contaminated sites under the New York Superfund Act.

Filtration Systems

Shortly after the contamination was discovered, construction began in September 2016 on a State-funded $ 22 million filtration system at Washington Lake.

Undertaken jointly by the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Health, this joint project was designed to remove PFOS and related chemicals from the water supply.

However, this system does not filter out short-chain PFOs.

In February 2017, a new above-ground contact tank with a 1.2 million gallon capacity came on-stream, allowing construction to start on the Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) treatment system.

By mid-July, eighteen carbon vessels – each with a capacity of 40,000 pounds – were delivered, with work on this project completed by early 2018.

Blame game

Local officials have been battling for years to lay the blame – and the burden of the related cleanup – where it belongs.

Holding the Department of Defense accountable, repeated calls have demanded that it clean up this contamination, to the extent that remediation funding was included in the Defense Bill.

Nevertheless, it was not until April 2019 that $ 2.4 million were allocated to cleaning up the actual source of the contamination affecting the Newburgh water supply: Recreation Pond on the Stewart Air National Guard Base.

Plans were finally drawn up for a filtration system at this run-off retention basin, installed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and designed to avoid contaminated stormwater outflows discharging into Silver Stream and flowing directly into Washington Lake.

More complex than the filtration system installed by the State at Washington Lake, this new filtration system ensures no water leaves the pond without first running through three types of treatment: solids removal; granulated carbon filtration; and then ion exchange resin filtration.

This final stage is used on many military bases for filtering out shorter-chain PFOs, while the first two stages remove other pollutants.

However, halting all contamination of this crucial water-body is only the first step in cleaning up the city’s water supply permanently.

The next remedial measure is to remove the contaminants that still make its water dangerous to drink.

Meanwhile, as a safety precaution, Newburgh and other water suppliers serving over 10,000 people in this region must test for several potential contaminants (including PFAS) under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Program.

Clean Water Infrastructure Act

Spurred by these environmental disasters – where contaminants were measured at over eighty times the EPA guidance level for long-term exposure via drinking water – the 2017 enactment of the $ 2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act set aside over $ 100 million for new source water protection and land conservation programs, with related legislation expanding drinking water protection to millions of residents in New York State.

Groundwater contamination 

In April 2019, a batch of C6 aqueous firefighting foam with IP FOS and BF 08 levels was released into Silver Stream by Atlantic Aviation at Stewart International Airport.

Although the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation assured local residents that this firm was environmentally friendly, a study conducted by the city of Newburgh proved otherwise, with sample results showing that the contaminated run-off contained high PFAS levels.

However,similarly high PFOS levels in this water might be due to past releases of legacy foam during firefighting or training sessions, or even accidental spills.

As the party responsible for the firefighting foam spill at Stewart International Airport, Atlantic Aviation was ordered to deploy all available resources in this cleanup, ensuring protection for public health and the environment, under DEC supervision.

Regardless of who is to blame, this latest incident underscores the vulnerability of the Newburgh watershed.

Sluggish government responses

It was not until November 2019 that community members were finally allowed to question the Department of Defense, despite its promises to hold regular meetings with the City of Newburgh, in order to ensure transparency in the entire remediation process.

These replies were similar to the answers given by other official sources, including the USAF Assistant Secretary and the Air National Guard Director.

Although the DOD may have outlined its plan for the $2.4 million filtration system at Recreation Pond, there was no definition of any actions addressing the remediation of contaminated groundwater at the Airport.

Studies conducted by an independent contractor have found several sites potentially affected by chemicals other than PFOS and PFOA.

Prior to even considering treatment, the sources of this pollution must be found.

Tests conducted in 2018 indicated PFOS and PFOA levels largely unchanged since 2016.

Distressed by this lack of progress, the local community is sceptical about these results, finding it hard to believe that toxic fire retardants can ‘accidentally’ enter a major watershed.

Having initially been told that no PFOS was involved, local residents were subsequently informed that this was not so.

Tiring of empty promises and defensive smokescreens, the local community is demanding effective action, wanting clean water rather than mere words.

Vital to community health, watershed protection is no place for official foot-dragging.

Sewage plan

In addition to chemical contamination, human pollution is also a problem in this region.

In May 2019, some 500 gallons per minute of untreated sewage spilled into the Hudson River for around 24 hours.

Well aware of the hazards arising from its aging sewer system (parts of which date back to the late XIX century), Newburgh is implementing a fifteen-year plan to curb sewage overflows into the Hudson River.

It is also pinpointing  illegal connections between its sewers and stormdrains that have been discharging raw sewage directly into the Hudson River, in some cases for decades!

Other contaminants

Another problem common to ageing urban infrastructures is lead, which has been found at elevated levels in city soils, as well as its water supply, probably due to old piping.

Other emerging contaminants have been identified in Newburgh’s drinking water supply, with harmful algae blooms at its backup reservoir in 2013 and 2015 producing toxic cyanobacteria.

These blooms could well indicate watershed issues requiring interventions, including green infrastructure designed to lessen stormwater inflows, and even constraints on lawn fertilizers.

Across-the-board remediation

it has become clear that thoughtless human interventions have serious and even life-threatening repercussions many miles away and many years later.

Although many current problems may be blamed on a lack of knowledge and the primitive technology of earlier times, there is today no excuse for jeopardizing the well-being of current and future generations.

To an increasing extent, advocates skilled in modern communications techniques are helping embattled communities claim their environmental rights, supported by vocal advocates – like NGOs, grassroots movements, activists and lawyers – that are skillful manipulators of modern media.

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