ALBANY — Environmental advocacy groups are criticizing New York’s plan to allow water suppliers to delay being hit with formal violations for exceeding the state’s incoming limits for industrial chemicals in public drinking water.
Since 2018, New York has been inching closer to joining a handful of states trying to make sure that public water supplies don’t contain harmful levels of chemicals, including those found in some non-stick pots and pans, paint strippers, stain resistant clothing and firefighting foams. State health officials said Tuesday that regulations could be finalized as early as April, and water suppliers would then face deadlines for testing drinking water and notifying the public about potentially dangerous levels of contaminants.
But several Democratic lawmakers and environmental activists are criticizing the state’s new plan to allow water suppliers to avoid a formal violation for up to several years. New Yorkers have until March 9 to comment on the plan.
“There’s no reason to delay or reduce public notification processes, nor to delay installing treatment systems when we know how toxic these chemicals are,” Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried, a Democrat, said.
Suppliers who receive deferral, a reprieve from being hit with drinking water violations, would only have to notify the public about contamination levels each year rather than every three months. Critics of the new plan are pointing to a legacy of industrial contaminants on Long Island and in communities including Hoosick Falls
“What the public wants to know is: what’s in their drinking water, what’s being detected, how safe or unsafe is it for their health?” New York Public Interest Research Group Environmental Policy Director Liz Moran said.
In the absence of federal action, state health officials are working on a plan for setting drinking water limits of 10 parts per trillion for chemicals PFOA and PFOS. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that PFOA and PFOS could potentially be harmful in the long-run to the health of certain people and suggested that drinking water not contain levels of more than 70 parts per trillion, but that limit is voluntary.
New York health officials also want a limit of 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic chemical found in inks, adhesives and household products such as shampoos. Experts consider it a likely carcinogen and say it can easily find its way into groundwater.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration first proposed the new water standards last fall and the state’s health commissioner gave his OK to proposed limits in July. The state wants to finalize its standards and is now proposing to allow water suppliers to ask for a deferral.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said New York’s proposed standards are among the nation’s toughest. Water suppliers would have 90 days once the state finalizes the contaminant limits to request a deferral, which the state could also take away if suppliers don’t show they’re working to clean up their water.
“To be clear, the option for deferral of enforcement does not nullify notification requirements for exceedances, is not intended to delay testing or treatment, and will not reduce transparency in any way, but rather signals our intent to work with water systems to achieve compliance for these new standards and to keep communities informed throughout the process,” spokeswoman Erin Silk said.
Chemical companies and manufacturers have been lobbying state health officials over the proposed water limits as they face lawsuits from Long Island municipalities that demand clean up money from polluters. A spokesman for the American Chemistry Council said Tuesday the deferral process highlights the financial and feasibility challenges posed by New York’s contaminant limits.
Several of the state’s largest suppliers have already begun testing and cleaning up their water. But leaders of water suppliers have also said the limits could raise costs, jeopardize insurance and lead to suppliers shutting down wells.
“We ask you to recognize the state’s regulators are under resourced to effectively regulate the contaminants,” said Mohawk Valley Water Authority Director of Water Quality Phillip Tangora, who chairs the New York Section of the American Water Works Association.
But Maureen Cunningham, senior director for clean water for Environmental Advocates of New York, said suppliers have long addressed violations for other contaminants without resorting to water shut-offs or raising concerns about insurance liability.
Several activists say New York should pass even stricter drinking water standards as a growing body of science highlights the long-term risks of industrial contaminants.
“We’re talking about one-in-a-million risk levels, but what does that mean when we’re talking about the cocktail of water that we’re actually drinking?” Nassau County Bar Association Environmental Law Committee Chair Nick Rigano.
Still, several activists complimented state officials Tuesday for discussing plans to tackle other industrial contaminants. And Rigano praised the Democratic governor’s budget proposal to fund a study to explore the possibility of Long Island receiving water from New York City.