Something in the Water: Rockland Advocates Demand Action on PFAS Chemicals

In Nov. 2020, Suez Water New York, the company responsible for treating the majority of Rockland’s drinking water, informed residents that dangerous amounts of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals had been detected in the county’s reservoir. PFAS, man-made chemicals that repel both water and oil, are used for a variety of manufacturing purposes and have been linked to multiple health issues, including cancer, thyroid damage, and infertility. Unfortunately, due to their versatility, PFAS have been widely used since the 1940s and are now one of the most common pollutants plaguing the environment.

In the seven months since its initial announcement, Suez has been less than transparent about its response to the issue. The company has not provided regular updates on its progress or publicly shared its plans for addressing the problem, according to the Rockland Water Coalition.

The advocacy group has called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to pass new legislation that would require more testing, accountability, and a blanket ban on all non-essential use of PFAS . In an open letter to Cuomo, which was signed by 78 schools, villages, health providers, businesses, faith groups, civic groups, arts groups, racial justice, consumer and environmental advocacy organizations, the Rockland Water Coalition outlined the steps necessary to keep the county’s water safe and urged the governor to sign its recommendations into law.

We at the Rockland Times thought it is best to let the experts speak for themselves on the issue, and have published the letter in its entirety below:

Dear Governor Cuomo,

We, the below signed organizations, urge you and your administration to act quickly to protect Rockland County residents from toxic PFAS chemicals in drinking water. We call on you to establish a strong precedent for other New York communities confronting similar contamination now or in the future.

Clean water is essential to keeping our families, friends, and neighbors healthy. Research has documented the health risks associated with PFAS chemicals, especially for the most vulnerable among us, including pregnant women, babies, small children and the immune-compromised. Among the health risks associated with PFAS chemicals are kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, decreased immune response, and decreased birth weight and skeletal birth defects. The science is clear: There is no known safe level of the chemical PFOA, PFOS or any other chemical in the PFAS class of chemicals. Suez Water New York has detected PFOA, PFOS and at least six other PFAS chemicals, each of which is regulated by at least one other state for their harmful health effects.

You and your administration have a moral and legal obligation to protect New York’s drinking water. The technology and other tools to clean these chemicals from our water are available. We are looking to your administration’s response to Rockland’s water contamination to set the highest standards for the entire state for thorough response, transparency, accountability, and urgency.

Specifically, we urge you to:

1. Eliminate PFAS chemicals from our water as quickly and comprehensively as possible. Water utilities must be required to provide filtration in a way that prevents any PFAS chemical from contaminating our drinking water. Utilities should be required to treat all water sources that currently exceed – or have exceeded – Maximum Contaminant Levels established by New York State. Water sources that exceed another state’s health-based standard should also receive treatment. To require that this happen, the state should quickly set stronger standards

2. Keep the public informed about the full extent of the contamination and the clean up process. Rockland County residents should be updated on the latest data, informed about progress, provided answers to their questions, and given the opportunity to weigh in before decisions are made. Regular updates should be provided by the water utilities, the Department of Health, and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Private well owners should be notified of PFAS contamination in Rockland’s drinking water sources. Renters and condominium dwellers who do not directly receive notices from water utilities should be kept informed as well.

3. Test comprehensively and publicly post the results. Our water should be tested for all 29 detectable PFAS chemicals and all results should be publicly posted online in a timely way. Free testing should be provided to private well owners near contaminated water sources.

4. Hold polluters accountable. Conduct a full investigation into the sources of contamination and hold the PFAS manufacturers or individual polluters that used these chemicals responsible to pay the cleanup costs.

5. Provide up-to-date information to healthcare providers and free blood testing to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women. Pregnant women and children with high levels of PFAS in their blood should also be provided alternate water.

6. Regulate all PFAS in drinking water together as a class at the state level. The contamination in Rockland highlights the fact that New York does not have the most protective drinking water standards. Many of Suez’s wells contaminated by multiple PFAS chemicals are at risk of not being cleaned up because New York to date does not regulate the total amount of PFAS in drinking water. Establishing a drinking water standard for the entire family of PFAS chemicals will ensure a much more protective standard for the drinking water of all New Yorkers.

7. Support legislation to ban the production of PFAS in non-essential uses. These persistent, toxic chemicals are ubiquitous in our air and water because they continue in such widespread use. Until the production of these chemicals is halted, PFAS will continue to put public health at risk. Non-essential uses of the chemicals must be quickly phased out.

Rockland Water Coalition also calls for safe disposal of PFAS from the spent carbon filters. Finally, the Coalition calls on Governor Cuomo to sign the recently enacted Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act, which would require testing for emerging contaminants, including all detectable PFAS chemicals.

At a time when the risks of PFAS chemicals are becoming increasingly clear, we call on you and your administration to take quick and thorough action to protect the health of Rockland County residents.