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State senator says task force on Hoosick Falls water is better than hearings; constituents disagree

Karen DeWitt

As part of the push to end the legislative session by Thursday, state lawmakers representing Hoosick Falls — where water has been contaminated with PFOA — want to extend the statute of limitations to bring lawsuits against polluters.

The bill would extend the current statute of limitations law to allow a three-year window between when a contaminated area is declared a Superfund site and when New Yorkers can file a lawsuit.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Kathy Marchione, who represents Hoosick Falls, said it’s a top priority for her in the remaining days of the session.

“There can’t be a time limit on justice for Hoosick Falls families,” Marchione said.

Hoosick Falls resident Michelle Baker said she wants, at the very least, the right to hold potential polluters accountable.

“Our water has been contaminated for possibly decades,” Baker said.

PFOA, which stands for perfluorooctanoic acid, is a chemical that has been linked to cancer. She said countless residents, and mothers like herself, go to bed or wake up with a “tear in their eye.”

“We are wondering, ‘Is my child going to be sick next, am I going to be sick next?’ ” said Baker.

In the Assembly, 132 of 150 members back the bill.

But Marchione said that even though the bill was written in February, she has yet to speak to Senate Leader John Flanagan about the measure. But she said she’s encouraged that the measure advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and plans to talk to the Senate leader in the three days left in the legislative session.

Marchione said she instead has been discussing whether the Senate should hold hearings on how the Cuomo administration handled the Hoosick Falls water crisis. There have been allegations that officials in Cuomo’s health department knew of the PFOA contamination a year and a half before they warned residents.

The Cuomo administration acted early in 2016, after the federal EPA’s regional administrator in late 2015 told villagers not to drink their water. But Marchione said while she’s not ruling out hearings, she’d rather work cooperatively instead right now.

“When you start pointing fingers and you start laying blame, it’s harder to work with people,” said Marchione. “I don’t want anyone stopping the progress that has been made in Hoosick.”

Marchione said creating a task force is a better idea, to decide how to handle future cases of potential chemical contamination in drinking water. Marchione admitted, though, that all of the meetings in a task force might not be public.

Baker said she’d rather have public hearings.

“I do support the hearings, because then that way, residents can be present,” said Baker. “We might have the opportunity to ask questions. We can hear every answer that’s given.”

Baker said she thinks hearings could proceed without finger-pointing.

But Baker said she’s grateful to Marchione for trying to push the bill to expand the time to bring lawsuits against polluters.

Marchione conceded that she has similar questions about who knew what when on the PFOA contamination.

“And if that’s real, we need to know why that occurred,” Marchione said.

But she maintained that hearings would not be the right way to go at this time, and praised Cuomo and his administration for acting quickly since the winter to offer residents water filters and blood tests.

The Assembly sponsor of the statute of limitations extension, John McDonald, said he’d like to hold hearings.

“It’s something that I think has merit to it,” said McDonald.

He said he’s asked the Assembly speaker for permission to do so. But Speaker Carl Heastie said while he’s not ruling out holding hearings on the state’s handling of the Hoosick Falls water crisis, he doesn’t plan on holding them anytime soon.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.