Water contamination update

Water contamination update

Fireworks erupted at the February 15th town board meeting over who knew what when about the 2016 illegal dumping of contaminated materials at the site of a planned new fire house on Oscawana Lake Road. Before the beginning of the public comment period, Councilman Louie Luongo, a longtime member of the Fire Department whose wife is Fire Company President, recused himself from the discussion.

Town resident Patty Villanova described the situation as the greatest town scandal in years, a characterization that Supervisor Jacqueline Annabi clearly found objectionable. Villanova wanted to know why it took the Fire Dept. six years to pursue a legal remedy, given that the remediation cost the town's taxpayers $2 million. She also blamed town board officials, including Supervisor Annabi, Councilman Luongo, and Councilwoman Stacey Tompkins, whose family's excavation company she said participated in the remediation, for not doing anything to hold the Fire Dept. accountable.

Bruce Johnson, vice chairman of the Fire Dept. board, also spoke during the public comment period. He noted that the Fire Dept. is made up entirely of volunteers, all town residents who also pay taxes and drink the water. He said that the department would never knowingly have done anything to contaminate the town's water and that the department was the victim, not the perpetrator. He did not address Villanova's question about why it took six years to begin seeking legal recourse. Johnson said the mitigation was successful, that the Fire Dept. had tested nearby wells for numerous pollutants and that there was no adverse effect on water quality. In listing the compounds for which the water was tested, he did not cite perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been the cause of recent concerns.  

The heated discussion about the Fire Dept.'s alleged role in contaminating the water supply overshadowed an announcement by Supervisor Annabi that she had arranged for representatives from the Putnam County Health Department to hold an educational forum for town residents on March 8th at 5pm at Town Hall.

She read aloud a letter from the Health Department Commissioner that seemed designed to persuade residents that concerns about PFAS contamination were exaggerated and to clarify that the county health department had no responsibility for private sources of water. (For a town where 97% of residents and businesses have no access to a public water supply, this is especially problematic.)

The commissioner's letter stated that PFAS contaminants are found in many items, such as furniture and cooking utensils, and that drinking water is just one potential source of exposure. In noting the NY State acceptable standard for PFAS of 10 parts per trillion, the commissioner seemed to make the case that if water samples exceed that level, it's no real cause for alarm. The commissioner noted that 10ppt is well below levels known to cause health effects and that studies of PFAS have only focused on people with high levels of exposure. "Less is known about the chances of health effects occurring from lower levels of exposure," the letter stated.

The letter went on to limit expectations about the role of the county's department of health: "The Putnam County Department of Health is responsible for regulatory oversight of public water sources, not (emphasis provided by Supervisor Annabi) private wells."

The letter went on to clarify that "the local health department monitors water sample results and performs inspections of public water supply and treatment facilities. The Putnam County Department of Health also provides community education to residents so they can ensure their private source of water remains safe for consumption."

To meet its obligation to provide community education to those dependent on private wells, the health department will have experts available at the Town Hall on March 8th. These experts will "provide information to enable residents to make decisions regarding well-water testing, drinking water treatment, and more." Town residents with questions they want addressed at that meeting should send them to Supervisor Annabi, who will relay them to the county health department in advance. Putnam County Executive Kevin Byrne will hold a separate forum on PFAS for the entire county at an unspecified date in the future.