Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Barrett and Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley near the Rhinebeck water treatment plant’s intake line in the Hudson River.
That’s where the group’s connection with Riverkeeper started to inform a broader policy agenda. Riverkeeper is an environmental organization that has been protecting the Hudson for 50 years. One of their core programs is community science and water quality monitoring. Individuals go into Hudson River tributaries to gather water samples for a program designed with scientist partners. “One of the places we did that for a couple of years was in the Quassaick Creek, which runs through Newburgh and forms the southern border of the city,” explains Dan Shapley, water quality program director at Riverkeeper. “And part of what we learned from the local advocates, the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance, was just how vulnerable Washington Lake was to contamination.” When Stewart ANGB sought a renewal of its pollution discharge permit, Riverkeeper knew to take a closer look. “We sort of painted the picture that this facility, particularly in this place, is of concern, and what’s coming off the base is putting at risk the drinking water downstream. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened.” Superfund The state identified Stewart ANGB as a source for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) contamination in the City of Newburgh’s public drinking water. PFOS is a key ingredient in firefighting foam. The contamination was first reported to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2014, and the city began to collect samples. When Governor Cuomo launched his Water Quality Rapid Response Team in February 2016, the New York State Department of Health reviewed EPA data and, in May, dropped the advisory level for PFOS presence from 200 parts per trillion (ppt) to 70. Newburgh’s samples ranged between 140 and 170 ppt, so the new advisory level put Newburgh’s drinking water well above the limit. Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino declared a state of emergency, and the DEC swiftly worked with the city to transition to Newburgh’s alternative drinking water supply, Brown’s Pond, in early May, and then to New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct in early June. The Stewart ANGB site was investigated and listed as a state Superfund site in August, which means the US Department of Defense is now responsible for full site clean-up. In November 22 FEATURE CHRONOGRAM 3/18
2017, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (NY-18) demanded that the Department of Defense and the Air Force put Stewart Air National Guard Base at the top of their priority list for new funding awarded for the cleanup of contaminated military facilities. In April 2017, Governor Cuomo signed the Clean Water Infrastructure Act—a $2.5 billion investment in New York’s drinking water infrastructure and water quality protection. Lake Washington was pumped and filtered, fish were sampled, and the source water assessment for the watershed was updated. Residents of Newburgh were invited to take free blood tests to determine their exposure levels, and so the state could study the health effects of PFOS contact, which are largely unknown. For the 34 years that Peter Smith has lived in Newburgh, there were only a few years when he wasn’t drinking and cooking with the tap water. He started using bottled water even before Newburgh declared a state of emergency in 2016. Smith was concerned about the overdevelopment of the watershed. Still, according to Smith, when his blood was tested, his PFOS level was 48. The US average is 2 micrograms per liter. A lot of people in Newburgh are now frightened about their drinking water. “Listening to the comments that are made at some of the public meetings, people are frustrated, number one,” Smith says. “They hear these numbers but they don’t know what they mean. There doesn’t seem to be a baseline of real information that would help people know what to do.” The Motion of the Ocean After the crisis in Newburgh, Riverkeeper set about analyzing what happened to put the drinking supply for 30,000 people at such risk. The result of that inquiry is Riverkeeper’s Drinking Source Water Protection Score Card, an online tool for citizens and municipalities to assess their source water. For Riverkeeper, it’s about catalyzing local efforts. “They will be the best situated to really make the improvements to water quality in the next 50 years,” says Riverkeeper’s Shapley. New York City is notoriously careful about protecting its five reservoirs and developing action plans and backup systems in the event of contamina-