Over the past few years, Hoosick Falls, a town located east of Schenectady, has faced a drinking water contamination problem similar to what Flint, Michigan experienced. In 2014, the Village of Hoosick Falls collected samples of its public drinking water system after a surprising death. The man’s son became suspicious of a chemical his father may have been exposed to at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the plant his father worked at for 32 years.
After conducting some research, he specifically became suspicious about a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOA is a toxic chemical widely used in producing consumer and industrial goods. Studies show PFOA causes cancer, immunological deficiencies and developmental defects. It has been used in manufacturing since the 1940s and remains an unregulated chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Clean Water Act of 1987 (CWA), the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) are three major acts of federal legislation that cover toxic substances in water and none of them regulate PFOA.
Hoosick Falls is not the only case of PFOA contamination; over 18 states have measured concentrations above safe levels. Prior to 2000, 3M and DuPont, the two primary manufacturers of PFOA, were aware of the adverse health effects PFOA had on people. Manufacturers are required to notify the EPA of any chemicals they plan to introduce into the marketplace and any chemicals that have been used prior to the enactment of TSCA.
Under TSCA, it is very difficult for the EPA to regulate chemicals currently in use that are discovered to be toxic, so instead the EPA encourages manufacturers to voluntarily end their production. Eventually 3M voluntarily halted its production of PFOA in 2002. DuPont did not report its use of PFOA and was fined $10.25 million by the EPA. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International are potentially the sources of the high PFOA concentration in the municipal water supply of Hoosick Falls, and they have both reported their use of PFOA to the EPA.
The water samples collected by the Village of Hoosick Falls in 2014 determined that there were high levels of PFOA in its public drinking water. About a year later, the EPA advised local residents to refrain from drinking and cooking with public water. In the meantime, the village looked to find an alternative water supply and also worked to acquire a treatment technology that would reduce the concentration of PFOA to safe levels.
In February 2016, a Granular Activated Carbon filtration system was set up at the water treatment plant, which had been proven to reduce concentrations of PFOA to safe levels in the public water system. In March 2016, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDH) concluded PFOA had been reduced to a safe level for all uses, and it lifted the “no drink and no cook” advisory. Many rounds of water sampling were completed before the determination was made.
Non-detectable amounts of PFOA have been measured in the municipal water system since March 2016. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics has paid $300,000 to address the issue’s effects. The company is also willing to pay for a permanent fix to the problem and recently agreed to give $1,045,000 to the village. New York State made an agreement with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International that required both companies to complete an investigation regarding how they might have been responsible. The EPA has also designated Hoosick Falls as a Superfund site.
The Superfund program is designed to clean up toxic chemical spills throughout the nation. In response, Governor Cuomo declared PFOA to be a regulated chemical in New York State. Locals have mixed emotions about the efforts that have gone into reducing the risk of PFOA.