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Cuomo must sign bills to prevent water pollution

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Recurring reports on the cost of cleaning Long Island's drinking water are daunting.

The Bethpage Water District spent $4 million to treat 1,4-dioxane at a single well. A similar system for a Huntington well will cost at least $1.25 million. The nearly 400,000 customers of the Suffolk County Water Authority will pay an extra $80 a year starting in January to remove 1,4-dioxane and other contaminants from 76 wells. Total expenses Long Islandwide to treat 1,4-dioxane alone are estimated at $840 million.

All of which leads to a simple observation: The best way to make sure Long Island's drinking water remains clean is to not let it get polluted in the first place.

That underscores the importance of new state legislation awaiting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's signature. One bill would limit the amount of 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen, in common household products like laundry soap, dish and hand soaps, and baby gels and bath products. These products are flushed down drains and into septic systems or wastewater treatment plants, and from there to drinking water sources — our sole-source aquifer on Long Island, as well as reservoirs, lakes and rivers elsewhere.

Another bill would ban firefighting foam that contains perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS chemicals, which can cause cancer, hormone disruption, and liver and kidney damage. The substances have been found in public and private wells in Westhampton Beach, Yaphank, East Hampton, Ronkonkoma and Hampton Bays, among other sites. A third bill would ban chlorpyrifos, a nasty pesticide linked to neurodevelopmental defects in humans that also is very toxic to bees.

The federal government has not set specific drinking water standards for these chemicals, so it's important that states act. New York already has recognized this urgency. It's working to adopt a drinking water standard of 1 part per billion for 1,4-dioxane; having a similarly tough standard for products that contribute to the problem is essential. It's especially critical for Long Island, which has 82 of the 89 wells identified by the state as requiring treatment. Cuomo smartly signed a fourth measure last month sponsored by State Sen. James Gaughran that will make it easier for water districts to sue polluters to recover cleanup costs. And recent state budgets have included a total of $3 billion for clean water initiatives, including cleanups.

Opponents of the PFAS and chlorpyrifos bills cite a lack of alternatives, but some entities are already phasing out the bad foam voluntarily. As for farmers' reliance on the pesticide, that likely will remain true until a looming ban forces the development  of less-harmful products. Extending the timeline before either ban takes effect would be a reasonable compromise, but vetoing the measures would send a signal that the welfare of big business is more important than the health of the public.

Cuomo has been a staunch supporter of clean water on Long Island. But legacies that are hard-won also can be easily tarnished. The governor needs to do the right thing again and sign these bills. The case for clean water has never been more compelling. 

— The editorial board