New York officials: EPA ‘counterproductive’ in water crisis

New York officials: EPA ‘counterproductive’ in water crisis
© Getty Images

New York state officials claim the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been “counterproductive” in its response to a drinking water contamination crisis in an upstate town.

In a Tuesday letter, a pair of officials appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) accused the EPA of causing confusion in its guidances regarding perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been found in elevated levels in the Hoosick Falls drinking water and has been linked to cancer and other serious illnesses.

ADVERTISEMENT

“While we always try to work in partnership with the federal government, the [EPA’s] role in the Hoosick Falls situation was certainly not helpful, and was, at times, counterproductive,” Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Environmental Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote to EPA head Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyIt's time for Congress to address the 'forever chemical' crisis Overnight Energy: Critics accuse Interior's top lawyer of misleading Congress | Boaty McBoatface makes key climate change discovery | Outrage over Trump's order to trim science advisory panels Trump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage MORE.

The commissioners claimed that the EPA's shifting guidance on the point at which PFOA levels become dangerous aggravated the situation. 

“The statements and guidance from the EPA’s regional office inexplicably differed from town to town in New York — not to mention from state to state. To further compound this confusion, the guidance from the EPA’s regional office differed from the EPA’s headquarters,” they said.

Judith Enck, the EPA administrator for the region that includes New York, pushed back against the accusations.

“That’s not accurate. There was no confusion, there was disagreement,” Enck told The Hill.

She went on to say that the EPA changed its PFOA guidelines this year, but the process was very transparent and state officials were well aware.

The EPA set a provisional level of safe lifetime exposure to PFOA in drinking water at 400 parts per trillion in 2009, according to The New York Times. In May of this year, the agency set a lifetime standard at 70 parts per trillion. The commissioners say in their letter that in January of this year, the EPA issued local guidance setting the level at 100 parts per trillion. 

On Tuesday, the New York state Senate held a hearing in Hoosick Falls to investigate state and federal responses to PFOA, an industrial chemical used in nearby plants that manufacture products such as Teflon.

The crisis developed around the same time as the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., which spurred new national attention on drinking water safety.

The state officials repeated their arguments in their testimony, with Seggos saying the EPA “made the situation worse,” according to the Albany Times-Union.

But the Cuomo administration has also been under fire, particularly for what some local and state leaders saw as a slow response to the crisis, the Times-Union said. The administration frequently pushed back against the EPA’s recommendations to take stronger action to protect the town’s residents.

In their Tuesday letter, the New York officials asked the EPA to reimburse the state for the at least $50 million it expects to spend due to the EPA’s “mishandling” of the crisis.

Enck said that’s not a proper role for the EPA and that all of the pollution clean-up costs should be incurred by the parties who are deemed responsible for the pollution.

“We expect the polluter to pick up these costs, and not federal taxpayers,” she said. “I’m a little surprised that New York state may be throwing in the towel so early in trying to get the polluter to cover these costs.”

Senators were disappointed that the EPA did not send a representative to the Tuesday hearing.

Instead, Enck submitted written testimony, defending the EPA’s actions and promising to stick with the state and Hoosick Falls throughout the process.

In addition to New York’s state legislature, the United States House Oversight Committee is investigating the Hoosick Falls crisis and the responses of state and federal officials.