Advocates warn state of toxins in tap water


ALBANY — Environmental advocacy organizations are urging the Cuomo administration to institute stringent regulations on the levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water as concerns rise that a federal watchdog agency may stay on the sidelines on the issue.

The state Health Department has been aware for at least three years that high levels of industrial toxin known as PFOA, used in nonstick cookware and other products, had contaminated the drinking water in the Rensselaer County community of Hoosick Falls.

A similar chemical known as PFOS has been detected in a reservoir that serves as the water supply for Newburgh, a city of 29,000 people. That chemical, used to make firefighting foam, was also found in a reservoir serving the Long Island town of Westhampton Beach.

The pressure for New York to act independently of federal regulators increased this week after Politico, an online news site, cited unnamed sources in reporting that the Trump administration is steering the Environmental Protection Action to set no limits for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water.

Both chemicals are among some 80,000 contaminants that have escaped from commercial and industrial activities into the environment but have not been regulated by the EPA.

"Governor Cuomo has said for over three years now that if the federal government does not establish a drinking water standard, then New York would," said Judith Enck, who in the former Obama administration was the Northeast region administrator for the EPA. "The New York Health Department is painfully slow, and other states are now speeding by them" with efforts to set limits on the toxins in tap water.

***A spokeswoman for the Health Department, Erin Silk, said her agency has what she called a pending proposal to adopt PFOA and PFOS standards, noting the review process is continuing.

"Federal inaction is not stopping New York from protecting its citizens from unregulated chemicals in drinking water," said Silk, citing recommendations for proposed standards issued by the New York's Drinking Water Quality Council. 

Others calling on the Health Department to move swiftly to set limits on PFOA and PFOS contaminants included representatives of the New York Public Interest Research Group, Food and Water Watch and Environmental Advocates.***

Liz Moran of NYPIRG said state officials could begin testing public water supplies almost immediately if they drafted emergency regulations for contaminants.

"The longer we don't have this on the books, the greater the chances are that people will be exposed to these chemicals," Moran said.

In Washington, the EPA released a statement that appeared to challenge the Politico report, though without directly denying it.

"Any information that speculates what is included in the (management) plan is premature," the agency said. The statement went on to say the EPA is "committed to following the Safe Drinking Water Act process for evaluating new drinking water standards."

Nevertheless, several New York congressional Democrats registered their concerns.

“Americans have a right to know how much, if any, of this chemical is in their drinking water," Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, said in a letter to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Delgado said EPA should address the levels of the toxins in the agency's water management plan.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Hudson Valley,, suggested Congress should legislative safe drinking water standards if the EPA avoids the issue of the industrial toxins in tap water.

“We can’t let the EPA get away with turning their backs on us and refusing to regulate chemicals we know are dangerous," Maloney said in a statement.

The EPA has set an advisory limit on PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion.

New York environmental activists said the states of Massachusetts and Vermont are both well ahead of New York in responding to toxins in drinking water.

In December, the New York Drinking Water Quality Council, headed by Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, recommended maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS at 10 parts per trillion.

Enck and the other activists said the Health Department show now put those standards in regulation.

Zucker has pointed out that the EPA is responsible for setting regulatory limits under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at

***Updated on Jan. 31 to add comment from New York State Department of Health.