Five years after residents of the Rensselaer County community of Hoosick Falls learned their drinking water was contaminated by the man-made toxin PFOA, the residents of Poestenkill, 25 miles to the south, have received similar alarming news.
This time, PFOA was detected in January 2021, in the drinking water at the Algonquin Middle School, as well as several surrounding homes.
Capital Tonight asked Judith Enck, a Poestenkill resident and former Region 2 EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, what was being done to find the source of the PFOA contamination.
“Virtually nothing and that’s what concerns me,” Enck said. “Very skimpy, very slow and virtually nothing is being done to find the source of the PFOA.”
Enck and others have claimed the state and Rensselaer County are moving too slowly. Enck has also stated that the county, not the state, is taking the lead in this investigation.
The crisis started in January when the Algonquin Middle School conducted water testing, which is now required by state regulation. The school found that the PFOA toxins in its drinking water exceeded the state’s standard of 10 parts per trillion.
It wasn’t until August, according to Enck, that Rensselaer County tested the wells of residences near the school.
The state is painting a much different picture of the process.
“This is a priority for us,” DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar told Capital Tonight on PFOA contamination in Poestenkill.
Mahar pointed out that the situation in Poestenkill is different from the one in Hoosick Falls. In fact, he said, it was only because of new regulations put into place after Hoosick Falls that the school realized it had a problem.
Those regulations kick off a process that starts with county health departments, he said.
“When we have a detection of a contaminant in the water supply that’s above the MCL (maximum contaminant level), one of our first steps is to work with the local county health department to assess that detection and make a plan of action,” Mahar explained.
In response to Enck’s allegation that the Rensselaer County Department of Health was taking the lead on addressing this contamination rather than the state of New York, Mahar said she was mistaken.
“That’s not true, Susan. What we’re doing is representing DEC, our partners at DOH, working with Rensselaer County. We have an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to addressing PFOA in Poestenkill. This is a true showing of how government is working together, and is supposed to work together on issues like this.”
In an emailed statement to Capital Tonight, Richard Crist, director of operations for Rensselaer County, said that the county’s health department has made the situation in Poestenkill a priority, in spite of current circumstances.
"We are taking the PFOA situation very seriously, and giving it priority attention, even as we deal with a pandemic and staffing issues brought on by mandates,” Crist wrote. “…we want residents to know we have heard their concerns, and are working productively and cooperatively with the state and the town on this issue.”
But there’s another practical difference between the state’s response to Hoosick Falls and Poestenkill, and it’s one that hits residents in their wallets: The state paid for the testing of wells in Hoosick Falls. Residents of Poestenkill also want their wells tested – but they’ve been told it will cost them $350.
“That is just unacceptable,” Enck said“People are pretty much being told that you’re on your own.”
Mahar didn’t directly address the cost of testing, but he did say that the state was trying to build confidence in its approach to this community.
“Based on the data that we’ve seen so far, we have an isolated detection at the school. We have two other wells that had detections in it, and one that had low level detections in it. They were spread out in different areas,” he explained.
But the most important issue according to Enck, is finding the source of the PFOA contamination.
“We really need the Hochul administration to direct the DEC to find the source of the PFOA which requires them to do some sampling wells, which are different than residential wells,” Enck said. “They’re going to say they are looking at residential wells. I think you can do two things at once.”
To that end, Enck and Poestenkill Town Board Member Eric Wohlleber sent a letter Wednesday to both the DEC and the DOH, urging them to investigate two possible sources of PFOA contamination: an unlined municipal landfill not far from the Algonquin School and a private company on State Route 355 in Poestenkill.
Mahar said the sites were something that the DEC is evaluating.
“That is one of the next steps we are moving forward on. As the data comes in from the private well sampling that we’re doing, that’s telling us where water flow may be occurring in the area, where contamination may exist and that pinpoints where we may need to look,” he explained.