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Lawmakers pass bill to help water providers recoup treatment costs

Jeffrey Szabo, the Suffolk County Water Authority chief

Jeffrey Szabo, the Suffolk County Water Authority chief executive officer, left, and Joseph Roccaro, a water quality engineer with the authority, look at an ultraviolet reactor before it was installed at the authority's Central Islip pump station in December 2016. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A bill that could help local water providers recover millions of dollars spent on treatment of drinking water contamination, including from 1,4-dioxane, passed the Assembly on Tuesday and now goes to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's desk.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. James Gaughran (D-Huntington), clarifies when the three-year statute of limitations starts for water providers to sue polluters. The bill passed the Senate last month.

Gaughran, former chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, said it “closes a loophole” and will help prevent ratepayers from picking up the full cost of treatment.

"I think the practical effect you'll see over a period of time is hundreds of millions of dollars in awards to public entities from polluters who caused the problem in the first place," Gaughran said. 

At least 22 Long Island water providers and governments have sued 1,4-dioxane manufacturers and distributors in Eastern District federal court over contamination in their water.

Contamination from the man-made chemical, found in industrial solvents and in trace amounts in common household products, is expected to cost Long Island water providers $840 million to treat. Traditional water treatment methods don't remove 1,4-dioxane, which is designated a likely carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state Department of Health is expected to finalize an enforcable drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane this year.

In the most recent legal action on the Island, the Town of Huntington and the Dix Hills Water Authority filed suit on May 20 against 1,4-dioxane manufacturers and distributors Dow Chemical Co., Ferro Corp. and Vulcan Materials Co.

Company representatives did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

The Bethpage Water District lost a case against Northrop Grumman when a court ruled it had waited too long to sue over contamination there.

At issue was when the three-year clock on claims started, according to the ruling. Northrop Grumman asserted it was when Bethpage knew of an imminent threat, before 2010, and took remedial action. The lawsuit was filed in 2013.

Under current court interpretation, the clock starts when a “reasonably prudent water provider should have or could have brought the suit,” Suffolk County Water Authority general counsel Tim Hopkins said. “That makes it difficult for a water supplier to know when they should commence the action."

The new law changes the standard, so the clock starts when there is "injury to property" resulting from contamination of the public water supply. Hopkins said that "provides more clarity for the current litigation for 1,4-dioxane."

Tyrand Fuller, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference, said in a statement, "This bill will have a profound impact on the ability of Long Island water providers to recoup funds for necessary treatment costs from polluters."

Jeff Szabo, chief executive officer of the Suffolk County Water Authority said, "This is a huge victory for residents of New York State and a significant blow to the polluters."

A spokesman for Cuomo said the administration will review the legislation. "Governor Cuomo is taking aggressive action to ensure every community has safe drinking water and polluters pay the price when they are found responsible,” spokesman Jordan Levine said in a statement.

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