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Water districts push state to delay enforcement of drinking water standard

The Hicksville moratorium on water connections, passed Sept.

The Hicksville moratorium on water connections, passed Sept. 11, effectively shuts down new homes and businesses from opening, according to water district superintendent Paul Granger Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Citing widespread contamination of the likely carcinogen 1,4-dioxane in public wells and the difficulty in removing it, Long Island water providers warned Wednesday they would implement dramatic water conservation measures if the state does not issue a yearslong delay in new drinking water standards.

The Hicksville Water District already has placed a moratorium on water connections, effectively preventing new development there, while the Bethpage Water District passed a ban on nonessential water use, including watering lawns and filling swimming pools, that would go into effect once the state starts enforcing new drinking water standards.

More than a dozen water district representatives asked for a delay or phase-in of the state's new standards at a meeting of the state's advisory Drinking Water Quality Council in Albany on Wednesday. The state is considering draft regulations that would require most water districts to test wells between 60 and 90 days of when the standards are adopted. The smallest water districts, serving less than 3,300 people, would have six months. Water districts would have 30 days to notify the public of any violations.

Water district superintendents said they would shut down wells rather than issue notices to the public saying they were in violation. They said the public notices would trigger insurance carriers to drop liability coverage for districts and cause customers to lose faith in the water coming out of their taps.
"Give us time to treat, or we’re out of business," said Stephen Moriarty, superintendent of the Plainview Water District, where nine of the district's 12 wells test above 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane, the recommended maximum contamination level, or MCL, being considered by the state. "I want to make it perfectly clear that the leadership of the Plainview Water District will not supply water that's not in compliance with the MCL."

He said the loss of 75 percent of supply would mean not enough water pressure for firefighting in the summer, and he couldn't guarantee a water supply to the hospital.

Brad Hutton, a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Health, said the department was reviewing more than 4,000 public comments about the drinking water standards, which include 1,4-dioxane, as well as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), found in firefighting foams, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), found in nonstick and stain-resistant products.

1,4-dioxane was detected in 70 percent of Long Island drinking water wells during a round of federally mandated testing conducted between 2013 and 2015.

"What has been asked of water suppliers can be accomplished, but not overnight," said Tyrand Fuller, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference and director of strategic initiatives at the Suffolk County Water Authority. "It's going to take years before required systems are designed, built and approved." 

Environmental advocates said the state should implement the drinking water standard as quickly as possible to protect public health.

"There's no safe level for exposure to any of these chemicals," said Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has advocated for stricter drinking water standards for the contaminants.

Harold Walker, a member of the state's Drinking Water Quality Council and a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said residents should have information if their water is contaminated so they could decide what to do, including whether to switch to bottled water for drinking.

"At the end of the day, the public should be empowered about making decisions about their own health," Walker said.

Loreen Hackett, a resident of Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County, said she and her family have been affected by PFOA contamination from a nearby plastics factory. “Health must come first in any of these regulations,” Hackett said at the meeting in Albany. 

Stanley Carey, superintendent of the Massapequa Water District and another Drinking Water Quality Council member, made an unsuccessful motion Wednesday to recommend a three-year delay before the new standards are enforced.

"Once you put out notification [of a violation], public trust is going to be lost. . . . They think they’ll come down with cancer next week," he said.

There's no immediate danger of getting ill from drinking water with 1,4-dioxane. Chronic, lifelong exposure to 0.35 parts per billion of 1,4-dioxane represents a one-in-a-million cancer risk, according to the EPA. The state is recommending a drinking water standard nearly three times higher — 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane.

Hempstead, Roslyn, Hicksville and Bethpage were among the districts that said they don’t have enough uncontaminated wells to meet the proposed state standards for the likely carcinogen, which is primarily tied to solvents used at industrial sites and also found in trace amounts in household products such as cleaners, shampoos and body washes.

Treatment systems for dozens of contaminated wells — expected to cost ratepayers $840 million — are being ordered, installed and tested, but only one, in Suffolk County, has so far been approved by New York State Department of Health for use in distribution systems. 1,4-dioxane isn't removed by a traditional treatment process.

The Hicksville moratorium, passed Sept. 10, effectively shuts down new homes and businesses from opening, according to district superintendent Paul Granger, another member of the Drinking Water Quality Council. Ten of 14 Hicksville wells are contaminated with 1,4-dioxane at levels above the standard proposed by the state, Granger said. The district said it would have trouble meeting demand with uncontaminated water.

“This proactive and temporary step will safeguard our District’s ability to more effectively meet our existing water demands,” according to a letter Granger sent lawmakers last month. 

In Bethpage, five of its nine wells exceed the proposed state standards; another two are approaching the standard, while the remaining two are well below the standard, according to Bethpage Superintendent Mike Boufis.

“We’d not be able to provide adequate water to the community” under the state’s proposed maximum contaminant level, Boufis said.

The state has identified the contamination in Bethpage to the plume of pollution coming from the former Northrop Grumman and Navy facilities.

At least 26 Long Island water providers and governments have filed lawsuits in Eastern District federal court against 1,4-dioxane manufacturers and distributors seeking to recover costs for cleanup and contamination.

Environmental and health advocates said the strict standards should be a wake-up call about Long Island’s contaminated aquifer.

"I believe the solution is to actually treat the groundwater supply like the limited and invaluable resource it is," said Sarah Meyland, a council member and director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. "It means a full-out effort to do all things we can reasonably do to manage it."

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