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SCWA: Lengthen statute of limitations so polluters can pay for cleanup

Attendees at the Long Island Drinking Water Quality

Attendees at the Long Island Drinking Water Quality Forum Thursday in Hauppauge. Credit: James Carbone

Companies that polluted New York State’s drinking water with emerging contaminants could escape liability for huge clean-up costs unless the statute of limitations is lengthened, Suffolk County Water Authority’s general counsel said on Thursday.

And for capital projects, water districts should be freed from the 2 percent cap on property taxes, said Tim Hopkins, the authority’s general counsel, at the Long Island Drinking Water Quality Forum it hosted in Hauppauge.

Hopkins also noted that state grants from the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act should take into account the number of people a water supplier serves, so that each customer of a large agency does not receive far less than someone who gets their drinking water from a much smaller entity.

“We’re going to be shoveling against a tide,” said Paul Granger, the superintendent of the Port Washington Water District and a member of the advisory New York State Drinking Water Quality Council, describing the costs and burdens of tackling the three pollutants — perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and 1,4 dioxane.

The forum, a Long Island Water Conference event, was held the same day the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that by the end of 2019 it will "propose a regulatory determination" for PFOS and PFOA, the next step in setting limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA also could define them as hazardous substances, and it will issue interim groundwater cleanup recommendations.

The state Department of Health says it expects to issue recommendations in the coming months, triggering the public comment process.

Exposure to PFOS and PFOA is tied to a variety of health problems, from cancer to elevated cholesterol, the EPA says. It calls 1,4 dioxane a likely human carcinogen.

Most people, the EPA says, have been exposed to PFOS and PFOA because they were so common in consumer products, from detergent to cosmetics to pizza boxes. However, Long Islanders also can be exposed from well water drawn near industrial sites or where firefighting foam was used, at Gabreski Air National Guard Base, for example.

Both PFOA and PFOS were found in more than 150 private wells in Wainscott, near the East Hampton Airport. The third contaminant, 1,4 dioxane, has been found in 165 wells, experts said.

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said there was bipartisan support for the statute of limitation bill  that he helped devise while chairing the Suffolk County Water Authority.

The current deadline kicks in when the injury is found — or should have been uncovered, Hopkins said.

Instead, it should not start  until a contaminant has been discovered at a level high enough to prompt notification, or at specified maximum levels, according to his presentation.

Further, the deadline should not start until “the last wrongful act of a person” who helped cause the pollution or the date when it last was detected in the raw water of a well or plant intake above specified levels, the presentation said.

The “clear majority” of the 89 public water entities that will need to treat 1,4 dioxane are located on Long Island, Granger said in his presentation, citing the state Department of Health.

That department now is weighing maximum contaminant levels: 10 parts per trillion for PFOA, 10 parts per trillion for PFOS, and one part per billion for 1,4 dioxane, he said.

The statewide price tag for dealing with PFOS, PFOA and 1,4 dioxane could exceed $1.5 billion for capital, and $75 million for annual operating costs, Granger said.

Critics have said both the state and the EPA have taken too long to regulate these hazards. Now, the federal government might be the laggard.

“The solution is simply setting a drinking water standard; New York State is well on its way. The EPA should be on its way,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group, told reporters after the EPA’s news conference in New York City.

With AP and Charles Eckert

PFOA, PFOS, 1,4-Dioxane

According to the EPA, exposure to PFOA and PFOS may result in adverse health effects, including testicular and kidney cancers, liver damage and developmental effects to fetuses or breast-fed infants, such as low birth weight and accelerated puberty.

  • 1,4-Dioxane is classified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen.
  • PFOS and 1,4-dioxane in particular have been detected in Long Island groundwater supplies.
  • PFOA and PFOS can be treated with existing carbon technologies. But 1,4-dioxane treatment is more expensive, and local water authorities have pilot projects to test how to remove the compound.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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