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Hudson River Contamination Sparks Action

Newburgh's water contamination crisis has spurred a protection movement among local organizations to restore safe drinking water from the Hudson River.

Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett and Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley
Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett and Riverkeeper’s Dan Shapley near the Rhinebeck water treatment plant’s intake line in the Hudson River.
Hillary Harvey
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While locally we’re all well aware that nine and a half million New York City residents drink from the vigilantly protected, pristine reservoirs of the Catskills (what the New York Times calls “the champagne of drinking water”), many people aren’t sure where those communities in the Catskills get their own drinking water. The Hudson Valley sips from a variety of sources: municipal reservoirs, lakes, and the Hudson River—a body of water which 100,000 people in the region rely on for everyday consumption. The river also has a storied history of contamination: Over 30 years, General Electric discharged polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into it, sparking a second wave of the Hudson Valley’s environmental movement.

Award-winning author Fran Dunwell grew up getting inoculated before her family’s boat outings, in case she fell in the polluted Hudson River. Two books later, when she encouraged local watershed alliances to advocate for the health of the Hudson River’s tributaries, the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance took to the woods. They call themselves a gang. “There are some people who have nicknamed us the COGs, which has a double meaning. Like, cogs in the wheel, but it’s really an acronym for Crusty Old Geezers,” the Alliance’s Peter Smith says with a mischievous laugh. Actually, they’re all hikers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, kayakers, and canoers, and they began to trace the streams and lakes that feed the City of Newburgh’s drinking water. “We knew that identifying the watershed was the first critical thing to do.”

Within the Hudson Valley, there are about 25 watersheds—land that feeds rain, snowmelt, rivers, and streams into a single body of water. Watersheds connect with each other to create a network that drains into progressively larger water bodies. Within the Hudson Valley, they all fit within what’s called, overall, the Hudson River Estuary watershed, which eventually feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.

What Smith and other members of the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance discovered in the woods, and, later, in Newburgh’s historical archives, was that the city’s primary water source, Washington Lake, had been misidentified. So, assumptions and characterizations for building projects had resulted in the land around Newburgh’s source drinking water to become overdeveloped with shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and parking lots. The New York State Thruway was built through Newburgh’s watershed. Tracking the limits of the watershed on topographic maps, the COGs were shocked to learn that the Stewart Air National Guard Base (ANGB)—the joint civil-military airport also known as Stewart International Airport—was within the Washington Lake Basin.

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.”

Credit: Hillary Harvey
Hudson Valley activists are addressing drinking water problems in Newburgh


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 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 contamination. Shapley’s assumption is that most communities north of New York City are more like Newburgh: vulnerable. “Even if they haven’t suffered the consequences yet, we don’t have coordinated protection programs in place for most of our public drinking water supplies around the state,” Shapley says.

In offering the Score Card to other communities, one of Shapley’s first stops was the office of Mayor Gary Barrett in Rhinebeck. It was March of 2017, during conversations around the US Coast Guard’s request to establish additional anchorages on the Hudson River for barges. Barrett was concerned about oil transport on the Hudson River in general. Rhinebeck uses the Hudson River as a primary source of drinking water, pumping water through a treatment process with chlorination and sand filters into a million-gallon tank reservoir on a high point in the village, and then gravity-feeding it back into the distribution system. “Our intake water line is about 700 feet out,” Barrett explains. “And one of the tankers’ parking zones was immediately north of our intake line. To us, that’s a threat of contamination.” Barrett and Shapley agreed to identify other municipalities who draw drinking water from the Hudson, and organize a collaboration.

As it turns out, there are seven municipalities that drink from the Hudson: Rhinebeck (village and town), Hyde Park, Lloyd, Esopus, and Poughkeepsie (city and town). So, about six months ago, an informal group with a representative from each municipality began to meet. “We thought, not only should we share information, but also get a collective voice,” says Barrett. These communities have only as much water as they can store. By and large, they don’t have backup supplies. While the US Coast Guard runs a study of their anchorage proposal, the coalition of municipalities who drink from the Hudson prepares to unify their voice. “We have 5,500 customers on our water supply system,” Barrett explains. “Where, if you put us all together, there’s 100,000 customers.”

The seven municipalities are all using Riverkeeper’s Score Card to analyze their protection programs, and on February 22nd, they collaboratively released a report that found that while the Hudson and its tributaries have been studied quite extensively, there are several data gaps regarding source water protection: at Hudson River intakes, at watershed planning, in focusing on treatment technologies rather than addressing issues happening at the source, among others. This spring, the seven municipalities coalition will be considering whether to become a formal inter-municipal group. If they do, each would pass a resolution and become part of a long-term source water protection initiative.

Aside from contamination and overdevelopment issues, there are other elements that could pose a water quality threat to any community: harmful algae blooms, or too much phosphorus—a common pollutant associated with everything from sewage, dog waste, or other urban runoff. Shapley says, a typical drinking water plant will look for about a hundred, at most, of the 85,000 chemicals in use in our society in its regular testing. “We don’t know which of those 85,000 is going to be a concern tomorrow or next year or ten years from now.” Shapley says. “So, the best way to protect drinking water is to protect the source.” A big issue in Newburgh, and for the communities which drink from the Hudson, is the fact that one jurisdiction may control the land that drains into the primary drinking water source for another community. That’s why land conservation is important. Shapley says that nature (the natural processes occurring in a watershed ecosystem) is really the best filter.

This story originally appeared in Chronogram magazine.

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