Vanessa Budetti and her son Skylar have lived in Newburgh for more than a decade. In 2016, the city of Newburgh declared a state of emergency after discovering that Lake Washington, the source of the city’s drinking water, was contaminated with high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate that exceeded the levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for safe consumption. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/News21)

NEWBURGH, N.Y. – Vanessa Budetti tries to live a clean, healthy life. She stocks organic and natural products in her household. She runs frequently to stay in shape. And she even rejects bottled water to decrease her environmental impact.

So the 45-year old Newburgh resident said she was surprised when she found out that she and her 14-year-old son Skylar had traces of a cancer-causing chemical in their blood.

They believe it came from their tap water.

“All Skylar and I drink is tap water,” Budetti said. “I felt it was the best choice to just drink the water that was supposedly clean and ready for us. We tried so hard, and then all of a sudden … (we) realize there are these chemicals in our body at these levels.”

Nearly 29,000 Newburgh residents were exposed to this chemical for years, according to Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that advocates for clean water for New York residents. Budetti found that she and her son are among the residents whose blood tested positive for perfluorooctane sulfonate.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation determined that the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh was the source of the contamination.

Military bases have used firefighting foam that contains the chemical, and manufacturers also have used it in cleaners, carpets and non-stick surfaces such as Teflon. Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino, declared a state of emergency in May 2016 after these chemicals were discovered in Silver Stream and Washington Lake, the city’s primary water source.

State officials will fund a carbon filtration system for Washington Lake to eliminate the chemicals from the water supply, and they said they will seek reimbursement from those responsible, including the Department of Defense, according to a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation news release. While residents wait until they finish installing the filter, scheduled for completion in October 2017, the city is receiving re-routed water from New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct.

An unclear future

Although officials are installing the filtration system, Ciaravino said other areas need clean up as well.

Some of the city’s highest pollution levels were detected in water coming from a pond near the military base. The pond used to flow into Washington Lake, but officials diverted it so it now flows into the Hudson River.

Ciaravino said his next goal is to urge the state to fund another filtration system at Recreation Pond so Washington Lake becomes usable again as a long-term water source.

Ciaravino said the Department of Defense has been “polite” in its response to the city. “But at the end of the day, we’re not seeing a meaningful action plan that translates into the level of urgency that everyone agrees this is,” he said. “We would like this to be treated like a threat on domestic soil in the United States of America.”

Dan Shapley, the water quality program director for Riverkeeper, said two other important problems aren’t resolved: The DOD has yet to claim full responsibility, and it still allows polluted water to flow off its base.

“They polluted this city’s drinking water supply,” Shapley said. “They’re charged with protecting us. Get started protecting this city.”

The DOD did not respond to a request for comment.

Riverkeeper also is pushing for a long-term, comprehensive plan to protect the drinking water and will continue monitoring the state’s response to ensure information reaches all Newburgh residents, especially since nearly 48 percent of households in the city speak a language other than English, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2015 data.

“The question that many of our community residents are asking rhetorically is: If the Department of Defense can defend us to threats around the world, why can’t they defend us against this cancer-causing agent that’s emanating from their very military base … where’s the urgency of that?” Ciaravino said.

Newburgh, NY fights for clean water

In 2016, the city of Newburgh, New York, declared a state of emergency after discovering that Lake Washington, the source of the city’s drinking water, was contaminated with high levels of a chemical found in foam used to fight fires at military bases. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/News21)

Potential health effects

Residents have raised questions about how the contaminated water could affect their long-term health. The Environmental Protection Agency classified perfluorooctane sulfonate as an “emerging contaminant,” or a chemical the EPA is researching and monitoring to determine its human and environmental effects. Researchers have linked the chemical to some cancers, high cholesterol and fetal development complications.

After living in Newburgh for 15 years and drinking the tap water while pregnant, Budetti said she suspects her son’s autism is linked to the contamination. She is concerned about his future.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command have conducted studies to evaluate how the chemical may cause birth defects and delayed development. However, there is no conclusive evidence.

The New York State Health Department offered blood testing to Newburgh residents starting in November 2016. After receiving her results, Budetti said she expected to see elevated levels of the chemical.

However, she was shocked that her son’s tests showed extremely high levels of one of the chemical variations, PFHxS. They were about 30 percent higher than Budetti’s levels, and in the 95th percentile for U.S. testing. Budetti said a state health department counselor told her the increased levels are likely due to the transmission of chemicals from her bloodstream during breast-feeding.

“It’s really upsetting to see,” Budetti said. “Everything I’ve done for his entire life … and these are the levels he’s at.”

She said she also worries about the current state of her water. She doesn’t trust the government’s test results and would like to test her own water.

But Ciaravino said they’re working hard to communicate that the water is safe now.

“We are now drinking some of the best, clearest water available in the state of New York,” he said. “I would like to be able to fulfill the promise that when we switch back to Washington Lake, we’re going to have the same quality water that we had been providing them since this emergency started.”

Ciaravino said this water contamination crisis is the last thing the city of Newburgh needs as it continues to face socioeconomic challenges. In 2015, about 34 percent of Newburgh residents lived below the poverty level, compared to the New York state average of about 16 percent. Nationally, it’s 15.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s this constant struggle between hope and despair in our community,” Ciaravino said. “We’re tough, though. That’s one the thing we have going for us: Newburgh is resilient, and Newburgh doesn’t shy away from its battles.”