State to tackle water pollution in northern New York village

New York village plagued by water pollution crisis
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Story highlights

  • A manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls, New York, is declared a state Superfund site
  • Water woes in village come on the heels of tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan
  • A toxic chemical found in household cleaning products was detected in drinking water

(CNN)One year after upstate New York resident Michael Hickey requested to have his drinking water tested for a possibly cancer-causing chemical, environmental authorities declared a manufacturing plant in his village a state Superfund site.

Hickey, a resident of Hoosick Falls, said he contacted his mayor in August 2014 after his father died of kidney cancer. He had suspicions that his father's cancer may have been caused by a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The chemical has been used for years by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the plant that Hickey's father worked at for 32 years.
"He didn't drink or smoke," Hickey said of his father.
Hickey became suspicious of PFOA after researching the chemicals his father may have been exposed to at the plant.
On Saturday, environmental advocate Erin Brockovich traveled to Hoosick Falls to speak with residents about their concerns.
"It's daunting, it's overwhelming, but now that we know, now [that] this community knows ... they have a chance," Brockovich told CNN affiliate TWC News Albany after touring the area and meeting with residents.
The water woes of Hoosick Falls come on the heels of the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and warnings from Ohio environmental authorities for residents not to drink from the tap after samples from homes and schools showed unsafe lead levels in Sebring, a town 70 miles southeast of Cleveland.
David Borge, the Hoosick Falls mayor, said officials in the village near the Vermont border had the water tested multiple times over the span of a year.
PFOA, a toxic chemical that can be found in household cleaning products, was detected in the town's drinking water at levels higher than the health advisory of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. PFOA was not a regulated contaminant and did not have enforceable standards. The industrial chemical is also used in the manufacture of coatings such as Teflon.
The chemical has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer as well as other health issues, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Late last year, more than a year after the first samples showed higher-than-advised levels, the EPA issued an advisory recommending village residents avoid cooking with and drinking the water.
"I think we've done everything, followed all the regulations, followed what the department of health told us to do, and we've informed all the local representatives," Borge said.
Saint-Gobain sent a letter to the EPA in December 2014 notifying them of the high levels of PFOA at their plant, said Dina Pokedoff, a company spokeswoman.
The company had "steadily reduced its use of raw materials containing PFOA" over the last decade and, in December 2014, stopped using materials containing the chemical, the statement said.
"Our number one priority is to protect the health and welfare of the residents of Hoosick Falls and our employees," Pokedoff said. "Right now, our primary focus will remain on providing both immediate and long-term solutions to this issue."
The statement said a temporary water filtration system installed by the company will begin providing clean drinking water in two to three weeks. A long-term filtration system will be completed later this year.
Saint-Gobain has owned the plant since February 1996.
When asked why the EPA waited nearly a year to issue an advisory, agency spokeswoman Mary Mears said Saint-Gobain's letter to the agency "was not a request for EPA action."
"The EPA was asked for assistance in October of last year," Mears said Saturday in an email to CNN. "We immediately took action and have been actively involved since that time."
Hickey said the official response has been "disheartening."
On Thursday, the EPA issued a new advisory for Hoosick Falls for levels of PFOA.
The lifetime health advisory level for PFOA was 400 parts per trillion but has now been updated to 100 part per trillion while the EPA continues to assess its guidance on the chemical.
PFOA is no longer unregulated. As part of the Superfund designation, the chemical was classified as a hazardous substance this week, according to the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The Superfund program cleans up contaminated land and responds to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.
Residents have been concerned about the rate of cancer in the village for a long time, according to Hickey.
As a result, the state health department is undertaking a cancer registry and investigating cancer among residents, the department said in a statement.
It's not known whether Saint-Gobain is responsible for the contamination but the company has been cooperating with authorities. It is providing bottled water to residents and paying for a temporary, $300,000 filtration system for the village, according to the mayor.
Saint-Gobain will also pay for a permanent fix to the problem, Borge said.
"It's been difficult," he said. "It's not an easy situation by any means."
Hickey said authorities appear to be addressing the concerns of residents.
"I think we are heading in the right direction now," he said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the status of a manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls, New York. It is a state Superfund site.