Westchester County Water Could Stand Improvement

Like everyone else in the nation, Westchesterites want to assume the water that comes out of the tap is safe. After all, how much easier is it to drink straight from the faucet than to filter your water first? Recent findings, however, may encourage you to consider purifying your 914 H2O before chugging it.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a national nonprofit whose stated mission is to protect human health and the environment, has created a tap-water database that details the quality of US public water systems. The study analyzed data from drinking water tests conducted from 2010-2015 on almost 50,000 public water systems, including those in Westchester County. Nationwide, water-utility companies tested for roughly 500 different contaminants and found 267. Searchable by ZIP code on the site’s (www.ewg.org) digital database, you can find out if the public tap water in your area contains specific, potentially harmful chemicals and is in violation of certain standards. The database shows contaminants detected in tests by water utilities themselves and then reported to federal or state authorities. The EWG is on the record as believing that the legal limits — as set by regulatory agencies — of levels of pollutants are “often the result of political and economic compromise, or based on outdated studies.” Instead of comparing the levels of pollutants to legal levels, the EWG’s guide relies on what contemporary scientists say are the levels that protect the public health of vulnerable populations, including infants, children, and pregnant women. According to these scientists, water may contain contaminants yet not be in violation of federal standards.

Originally passed by Congress in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the federal law that protects national public-drinking-water supply. The law was amended in 1986 and 1996 and protects every public water system in the country, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells (SDWA does not regulate private wells). The SDWA authorizes the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based standards and requires the EPA to review each national primary-drinking-water regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if necessary. But EWG senior scientist David Andrews told WM that federal regulations are obsolete. “Legal doesn’t necessarily always mean safe,” adding, “We know a lot more in the last two decades about how prevalent the contaminants are.”

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However, when WM asked the EPA, the press office responded with an email stating it has “promulgated a number of drinking water regulations that strengthen public health protection” since the SDWA’s 1996 amendments. The statement added: “These regulations, including those designed to reduce risks from disinfection byproducts, arsenic, surface pathogens such as Cryptosporidium, untreated higher-risk groundwater, and water served onboard airplanes, were developed in consultation with states, the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council, the Science Advisory Board, and/or other interested stakeholders.”

Every five years, the EPA issues a contaminant candidate list to determine if they should be regulated, although Andrews says that the EPA is not updating its standards.

Protection of our water is a wildly complex issue, as drinking-water standards differ based on the water systems’ type and size — including whether the water is provided by a community water system; a transient non-community water system; or a non-transient, non-community water system. Improperly disposed of chemicals, animal waste, and pesticides pose a threat to safe water. Human threats, wastes injected underground, and naturally occurring substances further compromise water purity.

Recently, there have been reports by both national and local media (e.g., Detroit Free Press, ABC News, the New York Times, Newburgh Times-Herald Record) regarding the possible presence of chemicals, including perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), in water and the ensuing health effects. Perfluorinated chemicals are a group of toxic chemicals that include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and other per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

A study concerning the health effects of PFAS was suppressed federally and, after pressure from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), it was released by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The 852-page study found that PFAS can pose risks to vulnerable populations at levels lower than what the EPA said was safe in its 2016 health advisory, according to a joint press release from the offices of Gillibrand and Schumer. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, ulcerative colitis, and other health conditions.

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“PFAS contamination has harmed communities throughout New York — including in the City of Newburgh, Westhampton Beach, and Hoosick Falls — and these residents deserve to know exactly how they have been affected,” said Gillibrand in the same statement.

A spokesperson from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) told WM that the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and the Westchester Department of Health conducted a sampling of water in the area near the Westchester County Airport and the Kensico Reservoir, from a supply well located at 1-3 New King St, in West Harrison, and confirmed the presence of PFAS and PFOS. (Kensico provides drinking water to New York City and some Westchester residents.) The NYSDEC said that bottled water is currently being provided and that tenants have been advised not to drink the facility’s water. NYSDEC assistant commissioner of public affairs Sean Mahar told WM: “The [NYSDEC] and [NYSDOH] will continue to work with and oversee the county during these investigations and will keep the community informed regarding any necessary actions to address this contamination.”

Not far from the Westchester border, Newburgh residents are uneasy regarding the contamination of its reservoir with toxic chemicals, as PFOS and other PFCs have been found at Stewart International Airport and Stewart Air National Guard Base. The NYSDOH has offered blood testing to concerned Newburgh residents. Mahar says, “The State’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team continues to investigate potential areas of contamination across New York State.”

As far as the EPA is concerned,  “Addressing PFAS in drinking water is a top priority for the EPA,” said an agency spokesperson to WM. “The EPA remains committed to evaluating PFOA and PFOS under the regulatory determination process using the best available science. As a part of the evaluation, the EPA will be reviewing all newly available scientific information, including the ATSDR report.”

What is Westchester doing to ensure safe drinking water? The county’s Department of Environmental Facilities constructed the White Plains Orchard Street pumping station ultraviolet (UV) facility, which went into service June 2017. Additionally, the Central Avenue pumping station UV facility, also in White Plains, went into service in March. The two new facilities, which serve Water District #1, are designed to address water-safety concerns for White Plains, Mount Vernon, Scarsdale, and Yonkers. Additionally, a $1.2 billion drinking-water project was recently announced that would include construction of a tunnel between the Kensico Reservoir and a UV treatment plant in Eastview to help ensure high-quality drinking water. The project will be New York City’s largest water-supply tunneling effort in Westchester County since the 1940s. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, construction is expected to begin in approximately five years.

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In the meantime, it might be wise to take Andrews’ advice: Learn about your local water supply and mobilize, if necessary. Andrews says the reason regulations are not updated more often is because people are unaware and uninformed. “We really do believe that customers should focus locally — local government, local utilities, and the state level,” he says.

Editor’s note: Despite multiple attempts by WM, efforts to get statements from Senator Chuck Schumer, County Executive George Latimer, and the Westchester County Department of Health were unsuccessful.

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