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Cuomo officials grilled on Hoosick Falls water crisis

Karen DeWitt
New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, right, testifies at joint legislative hearing on water quality at the Capitol Wednesday

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner faced an intense grilling from lawmakers Wednesday at a joint hearing on how the administration handled water contamination in the eastern New York village of Hoosick Falls.

Cuomo’s administration has been accused of failing for 18 months to inform Hoosick Falls residents that their water might be contaminated with the toxic chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, and unsafe to drink. PFOA is used in Teflon manufacturing, among other things, and linked to cancer.

Legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, intently questioned New York State Health Department Commissioner Howard Zucker and other administration officials to find out what they knew about the PFOA contamination — and when.

Zucker, testifying under oath, blamed the federal Environmental Protection Agency for any mix-up, saying they kept making “sudden” changes on their guidelines for safe levels of PFOA for human consumption, and the state health department struggled to keep up.

“There were inconsistencies,” Zucker said.

But Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) says the health department needs to explain an even bigger inconsistency. Why, he asked, did the department in December 2015, distribute a fact sheet to village residents saying the water was safe to drink, after federal EPA administrator Judith Enck in November 2015 had warned residents in a town meeting not to drink the water? And after state health officials had already helped distribute bottled water and installed filtration systems?

“I can’t understand, for the life of me,” DeFrancisco said.

Zucker answered that one day after the EPA administrator issued her warning, the state health department acted.

“The next day we complied with that,” Zucker said.

A spokesman for Cuomo said later that the health department did change some language in its fact sheet.It changed the phrase “people may consider use of bottled water” for drinking and food preparation, written on December 3, 2015 to “people should use bottled water” on December 18.

But, DeFrancisco asked, why then did DOH not change the fact sheet and tell residents the water was not OK to drink?

“Doctor, I don’t think there’s anybody that can read the English language that can confuse the determination by the health department that the water is not dangerous to people,” said DeFrancisco. “Is there any other interpretation?”

Zucker finally conceded the health department could have done better.

“That fact sheet probably could have been clearer for the public,” Zucker said.

Tests conducted this year by the health department found hundreds of residents in Hoosick Falls with very high levels of PFOA in their blood.

Zucker and other health department officials, in addition to blaming the EPA for any confusion, also pointed the finger at the polluter, Saint-Gobain, which was invited to testify but declined. The company may be subpoenaed to appear at a later hearing.

The health officials also cast doubt on village leaders’ efforts, and even blamed landlords for not informing tenants about the potential safety of their water. That led Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, who represents Hoosick Falls, to finally explode.

“There’s a nice game going on,” said McLaughlin, who said he and other legislators weren’t “buying it.”

“Meanwhile, DOH continues to say, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong,’” McLaughlin said. “It’s distressing to hear that.”

While the hearing continued, there was a new development. The EPA declared Hoosick Falls a federal Superfund site.

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.