NEWBURGH, N.Y. – When Newburgh’s city manager declared a state of emergency last year after tests found dangerous levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid in the city’s water supply, Nancy Colas scheduled blood tests for everyone in her family.
“My 17-year-old, he pretty much grew up here, and he’s been drinking that water all his life,” she said.
The Colas family tested well above the the maximum level allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. PFOS, a dangerous chemical found in firefighting foam, has been linked to cancer and other medical problems.
“There are effects that I wonder how it’s going to affect us down the line,” Colas said. “Cognitively, are my children going to be OK as they get older?”
Newburgh, a poor city filled with black and Latino residents, is one of many communities of color whose water has been contaminated by nearby Superfund or hazardous waste sites. In this case, the Stewart Air National Guard Base leaked PFOS into the town’s lakes and reservoirs.
Colas, like a growing number of Newburgh residents, is suing the city of Newburgh for negligence, contending that city officials were long aware of the problem before they declared a state of emergency, putting residents at greater risk of illness.
“It hurts to know that they knew, and they didn’t say anything,” she said. “I’m sure there are people that knew.”
And much like other Newburgh residents, Colas also thinks that had she lived in a different town or been born a different race, she would’ve never been exposed to PFOS.
“It is an environmental justice issue because if we were sitting in Deer Park, Long Island, I don’t think it would have ever been an issue,” Colas said. “I don’t think there would have been contamination, period. Because someone would have said ‘not in my backyard.’”
Many residents, including city officials, said the Department of Defense would be more motivated to clean up the Superfund site if Newburgh were a whiter, more affluent town.
“It certainly feels like that might be part of it, because why are they ignoring us?” said Genie Abrams, a Newburgh City Council member. “Are they ignoring other communities, the wealthier communities, the whiter communities?
Some residents said town meetings meant to update residents are poorly publicized. Many still haven’t been blood tested, specifically in the Spanish-speaking community. The city government has posted materials in both Spanish and Creole on its website, but community activists said it’s not enough.
“For this level of danger, there should be letters being sent out to every single home periodically to update, and that’s not happening in English and Spanish,” said Kevindaryan Lujan, a Newburgh resident. “So this is an issue the community is concerned about. And there’s whole bulks of the community that are unaware of what’s going on.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is working to complete a multimillion dollar filtration plant to treat Newburgh’s poisoned water by October. State officials and environmental experts are pressing the Department of Defense to clean up contamination at the Superfund site.
“The federal and the state government have really been passing the buck to each other on this issue, no one really wants to take care of it,” Lujan said. “It’s kind of being put under the rug, and people are still scared.”
Newburgh will return to its original water supply in the fall when the filtration plant is fully constructed. “We need to have clean water here, it’s a basic human right for anyone, no matter what your income level is,” Abrams said.
To see the full News21 report on “Troubled Water,” go to troubledwater.news21.com on Aug. 14.