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Tap water in Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, and Seneca County test positive for dangerous chemicals

Public drinking water in Watkins Glen, Montour Falls and Seneca County contains elevated levels of the cancer-linked PFAS class of chemicals found in dozens of stain-repellent household products like Teflon and Scotchguard, recent tests show.

The results from a University of Michigan chemical lab fall within recently proposed enforceable New York State limits for two of the group’s most notorious variants — PFOA and PFOS.

But they easily exceed the more stringent standards recommended by many scientists and several environmental groups. For example, the National Resources Defense Council recommended in March a maximum contaminant level of 2 parts per trillion for any combination of four key PFAS chemicals.

Tests for 14 PFAS variants in Watkins Glen water registered a combined 21.0 parts per trillion, while tap water drawn from a Waterloo plant in Seneca County came in at 17.6 ppt, and water from Montour Falls registered 13.7 ppt. 

Water from private wells near the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus had combined PFAS readings of 20.0 ppt, 5.0 ppt and 4.1 ppt.

The state recently proposed10 ppt as an enforceable limit for both PFOA and PFOS, substances that are no longer manufactured in the U.S. 

“The proposed state standards won’t protect the public,” said Mary Anne Kowalski, research director for Seneca Lake Guardian, which arranged for the Michigan lab to conduct the tests.

“Our results demonstrate that they need to be lower and cover more chemicals,” she added. “Seneca Lake Guardian will be working with other organizations and elected officials to inform the public about the risks.”

Terry Wilcox, superintendent of public works in Watkins Glen, declined to comment on the test results for the water system he supervises.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation referred questions about drinking water to the state Department of Health. 

DOH spokesman Jonah Bruno declined to comment on the Michigan lab’s results from the Seneca Lake-area samples. Instead he provided a general statement about the proposed DOH limits.

“It’s hard to believe there’s still no urgency at the state level for finding the source of the (PFAS) contamination and remediating it,” said Judith Enck, former regional supervisor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Enck, who helped expose a PFAS contamination scandal in Hoosick Falls drinking water in 2015, said the DOH needs to conduct more tests and, above all, go public with its results.   

The state’s proposed new limits for PFOA and PFOS were prompted by the Hoosick Falls water crisis. The state took months to share what it knew about the dire nature of the contamination before it finally ordered a ban on drinking the town water.

The public furor prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to create a drinking water task force that recommended the new PFOA and PFOS standards. His administration also obtained millions of dollars from a manufacturer suspected of generating the pollution. The money was used to finance the installation a sophisticated filter system that has restored the relative purity of Hoosick Falls water.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the DOH conducted spot-checks on roughly 450 other water systems statewide, picking sites based on a list of suspected violators developed by the DEC.

The agencies later acknowledged that test results showed that dozens systems would have failed to meet the new limits for PFOA and/or PFOS. From those results, they projected that 21 percent of the state’s water systems would exceed the proposed limits for the two toxic substances. The costs to remediate will run into the many hundreds of millions of dollars, the DOH said.

But state officials have refused to identify the water systems that had test results exceeding the new limits. The agencies have repeatedly delayed public requests under the Freedom of Information Law that seek to pry loose that data.

WaterFront filed a FOIL request with the DEC in April to obtain the test results for water systems within the Finger Lakes region. In May, the agency said it expected to deliver the requested information by mid-July. In July, it said it expected to deliver it in August. In August, it said it expected to provide the requested information in September. 

Similarly, the DOH has repeatedly postponed providing PFAS data requested last November by SLG’s Kowalski. In its most recent letter to Kowalski, that agency said it expected to deliver on her request in November — a full year out from the original request.

“The (DEC and DOH) should be releasing every piece of information they have on PFAS contamination,” said Liz Moran of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It shouldn’t be kept secret because it’s about people’s health

“They could course-correct right now by holding public hearings. They public has a basic right to know.”

NYPIRG and Environmental Advocates of New York both support the NRDC recommendation for a limit of 2 parts per trillion for any combination of PFAS class chemicals — far below the 10 ppt each for PFOA and PFOS that the DOH has proposed.

In fact, manufacturers have quit using those two well-studied substances and often replaced them with PFAS variants collectively referred to as PFAS “GenX” that may be at least as dangerous.

“If we regulate only a handful of PFAS, there will be swift regrettable substitution with other, similarly toxic PFAS — creating an ongoing problem where addressing one chemical at a time incentivizes the use of other toxic chemicals,” NRDC said in its extensive report in March.

“The replacement of PFOA with GenX is a perfect example of regrettable substitution,” the study added. 

NRDC recommends a limit of 5 ppt for any combination of GenX chemicals. 

PFOA was once used by DuPont to make Teflon, while PFOS was an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchguard. 

The two banned substances were also key elements in firefighting foam used to suppress petroleum infernos, mostly at airports and fire training facilities. 

That’s caused problems for the Department of Defense, which used the foam at dozens of military bases across the country, including the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus. Virtually all those bases have documented PFAS contamination. 

In the case of the Seneca Army Depot, one reading reached 89,000 ppt — prompting Seneca Lake Guardian to call for an urgent mapping of the inevitable pollution plume.

Last year, in spot tests of two wells west of the depot, the DOH found combined PFAS of 81 ppt at one and 65 ppt at the other (combined PFOA and PFOS were roughly half those totals at each). A well east of the depot showed total PFAS of 8 ppt, all from PFOS or PFOA, according to DOH documents Kowalski obtained from local officials.

“There are currently dairy cattle grazing and agricultural crops growing at sites of contamination on the Army Depot,” SLG said in a March 1, 2019 letter to the DOH. “The depot is in a popular deer hunting area and Cayuga and Seneca Lakes are popular for fishing….(A) complete lack of information leaves our area at risk and we cannot wait any longer for the necessary remediation.

“The PFAS at the depot does not appear to be affecting Seneca Lake, the drinking water source for over 100,000 people. However, the plume is heading to the lake, and the state should not stand by until it happens.”

The DOH responded six weeks later in a letter to SLG that said: 

“Discussions on PFAS contamination between the agencies and the Army are ongoing. We will continue collaborating and requesting that actions are taken expeditiously.”

The some 4,700 members of the PFAS class are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not readily break down in the environment.

Studies have linked PFAS substances with testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer, as well as problems with the endocrine and immune systems. They are also associated with lower birth rates, weight gain and high cholesterol.

Despite growing scientific alarm about the dangers of PFAS, the federal EPA has been reluctant to take decisive action. 

In the wake of the Hoosick Falls crisis, the agency did lower its advisory level for PFOA and PFOS from 400 ppt to 70 ppt — far higher than most current scientific estimates of what is a safe dose. Even so, that 70 ppt federal limit is not enforceable.

In February, the EPA released its “PFAS Action Plan.” Several environmental groups, including the Environmental Working Group, were under- impressed and testified to that effect before Congress. EWG claims that a number of its recommendations made it into proposed legislation.

In recent weeks, both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have passed PFAS regulation bills that have been incorporated into the must-pass FY 2020 Defense Authorization Bill.

According to news reports, President Trump has threatened to veto the bill over his objections to the PFAS amendments. 

Peter Mantius is founder of the Water Front, an all-digital publication dedicated to providing coverage of important environmental politics in the Finger Lakes. He brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his storytelling, which includes frequent deep-dives into local, and regional issues. Contact him by clicking here or dropping him a line at [email protected].