New York State has granted 21 Long Island water providers additional time to meet new drinking water standards, while an environmental group is calling on the state to deny further delays in implementing the requirements.
Water providers said they are working within state guidelines and that extensions are needed in some cases to get expensive new treatment systems in place.
The state Department of Health in August adopted maximum contaminant levels for three chemicals: 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogenic industrial solvent also found in trace amounts in household products, at 1 part per billion; and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), used in firefighting foams, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), found in stain and water-resistant material — both at 10 parts per trillion.
The chemicals, known as emerging contaminants, which are compounds that either weren't known about or detected in the past, are present in about 70% of Long Island's wells. The Long Island Water Conference, which represents providers, has said it will cost suppliers more than $1.5 billion to comply with the new standards, an amount that will be funded through state grants and water rate hikes, which already have started to hit customers.
Additionally, many suppliers have filed litigation against chemical manufacturers, hoping to recoup costs for treatment systems.
Water providers could apply for a two-year deferral to meet the new standards, with an option for a third year. Those that received extensions were required to notify customers and to post letters on their websites. Of Long Island’s more than 50 water providers, 21 received extensions into 2022.
The Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment presented a report Wednesday on which water districts received deferrals using information compiled from provider websites, and the state confirmed those findings. Adrienne Esposito, the organization’s executive director, said many providers have taken contaminated wells out of service, so the number of people drinking water that does not meet standards is not clear.
"We don’t know when those wells are on and off, but we do know it’s thousands, it’s over a quarter-million people today that are drinking water contaminated with these three contaminants above the New York State … standard to protect our health," she said.
The state health department states on its website that the new standards are far below the levels known to cause short-term health effects and are instead intended to mitigate long-term exposure.
"Unfortunately, CCE [Citizens Campaign for the Environment] is misinforming the public about New York's MCL [maximum contaminant level] process and the deferral requirements for our nation-leading drinking water standards," state Department of Health spokesman Gary Holmes said. "A deferral effectively jump-starts the process for those water suppliers who have prepared for compliance ahead of the MCL adoptions, and ensures they can meet all requirements, including notification and a plan for remediation, without technically being in violation."
Esposito said the risk still increases with exposure.
"We object to the public being told that contamination in our drinking water is safe," Esposito said of references contained in the providers' letters to the public. "That is a misleading statement based on political science and not biological science."
Esposito's report also included recommendations for the health department to make the deferral process easier for customers to understand. The group is asking the state to require providers to give customers information on how many wells are affected, a timeline for compliance, and to include that information on the health department's website. It also is asking the department to deny third-year deferrals for PFOS/PFOA treatment because those contaminants are more easily removed than 1,4-dioxane.
Holmes said the deferral process holds water providers accountable and that it is closely reviewing additional extension requests.
Some local providers, including the Franklin Square and Hicksville water districts, already have taken steps to provide additional information to their customers, the report notes.
Dennis Kelleher, an engineer and a spokesman for the Long Island Water Conference, said many districts have taken wells with water levels in violation of state standards out of service until new treatment systems are in place.
"The water suppliers are doing everything that the state health department has required," he said. "The people are not drinking water that exceeds" maximum contaminant levels.
Thirteen 1,4-dioxane treatment systems are in place across the Island, up from two that were operational when the new standards were approved, Kelleher said. The systems use hydrogen peroxide and UV light to break down the chemical, which is then removed with a carbon filter.
Water providers noted that supply chain issues may make it difficult to comply within two years, which will make it necessary for some to seek another extension.
Riverhead received a two-year extension in addressing a well with a 15.9 ppt PFOS reading, but water district Superintendent Frank Mancini said the district only uses that well during peak times, mainly in the summer. It then blends the water with water from another well so residents are not receiving water that doesn’t meet standards.
"If we had a magic wand and could build all the treatments tomorrow, every water supplier I know would do that," Mancini said. "But unfortunately, it's just not that easy."