A chemical spill more than two decades ago at an Air National Guard base located 60 miles north of New York City is at the center of a water crisis in the City of Newburgh. Now, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is accusing the Department of Defense of failing to quickly respond or conduct a thorough investigation.
The city of Newburgh declared a state of emergency in May 2016 and stopped drawing water from Washington Lake, which supplies water to the municipality’s 29,000 residents. A Department of Environmental Conservation investigation in March found that the lake was contaminated with perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, a pollutant used in fire fighting foam. The investigation also identified the source of the contamination: Samples from the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base tested for high levels of PFOS. A spill of 4,000 gallons of liquid fire-fighting foam at the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base in the early 1990s likely caused the contamination, the Department of Environmental Conservation suggested. The spill didn’t raise alarms at the time, however, because scientists hadn’t yet studied the health effects of PFOS.
This segment originally aired Jan. 12, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Today, PFOS has been linked to testicular, kidney, and thyroid disease, causing the EPA to issue a health advisory limit on the agent in 2009, which it revised and strengthened last year. And although PFOS isn’t regulated at the federal level, New York State has issued a temporary emergency rule to classify PFOS as a hazardous substance. Despite the change in Newburgh’s local water source, many residents continue to worry about the effects that drinking water from Washington Lake may have had on their health — and blame the military for the contamination.
Torrance Harvey, a councilman for the city of Newburgh, is one of many concerned about the government’s involvement in the spill. “When we look at where the contaminants are coming from, it is at the Air Force Base, which is part of the Department of Defense — and that’s a federal agency,” he told VICE News during a town hall meeting in Newburgh in late September. “I’m concerned about my own health, my wife’s health, my children, and then all the residents of the city of Newburgh.”
A month earlier, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation listed the Stewart Air National Guard Base as a Superfund site, which means that the department is now overseeing the DOD’s remediation efforts at Lake Washington. But so far, the DOD hasn’t fulfilled its duties, said Martin Brand, deputy commissioner for Remediation and Materials Management at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In a statement last week, Brand said that both the DOD and the Air National Guard “continue to drag their feet and have refused to conduct a robust investigation that will quickly lead to remedial action.”
The DOD is supposed to submit its work plan by the end of January, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. When VICE News reached out to the DOD for comment, a spokesperson referred us to a statement from November, which outlined steps the Air Force would take to investigate the contamination. A spokesperson for the Air Force said it’s still conducting that investigation.