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Drinking Water

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By Stephanie Quarles

Many organizations, universities, scientists and government officials have studied and spoken out on Long Island’s water issues, with regard to our oceans, estuaries, rivers and our aquifers.  

A recent conference in Riverhead on May 30, organized by the Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY), focused on the contamination of drinking water supplies in Suffolk County and aimed to educate and strengthen advocacy and partnerships on these issues. At the conference the following bills that were pending in the NYS Legislature and supported by EANY were highlighted. Since the conference, the Senate and Assembly have debated and passed all but one of these bills. They are described below (source: EANY). 

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1,4-Dioxane Ban A.6295, S.4389 prohibits the distribution and sale of household cleaning products and personal cosmetic products containing 1,4-dioxane to protect our health and waterways that will take effect Dec. 21, 2021. The USEPA has classified it as likely to be “carcinogenic to humans, and it is listed by California Proposition 65 as known or suspected of causing cancer or birth defects. Studies show that it causes chronic kidney and lever effects and liver cancer.” Since it is not listed as an ingredient in health and beauty and home care products, “it is difficult for consumers to avoid.” Alternative manufacturing processes exist.  

The NY State Drinking Water Council recommends that for 1,4-dioxane, more than 1 part per billion requires treatment. Nassau and Suffolk water suppliers have reported the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane contamination in the nation. It is most prevalent in our Long Island waters with 82 of the 89 wells above the threshold.         

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

PFAS-Free Firefighting Foam A.445, S.439 bans the use, manufacture, sale and distribution of firefighting foam containing perfluroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS chemicals two years after the effective date. These bills are to eliminate a major source of drinking water contamination and encourage alternatives. PFAS is associated with cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and immune system toxicity. There is no safe level of exposure.

Hampton Bays Fire Department was designated as a Superfund site (contamination site) due to groundwater contamination by PFAS.

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

“Polluter Pays” A.5377-C, S.3337-C allows public water suppliers and wholesale water suppliers to sue a polluter for damages within three years of water testing that reveals elevated levels of dangerous contaminants in the water supply. This bill makes it easier to hold polluters accountable and helps prevent the costs of remediation from falling on New York taxpayers.

Update: Passed by NYS Senate and NYS Assembly, waiting for governor’s signature to become law.

Restricting Nitrogen Fertilizer A.4568, S.2130 adds to the Environmental Conservation Law to require that only low-level fertilizer with no more than 12 percent nitrogen by weight is sold in Suffolk and Nassau counties. Limits on nitrogen in fertilizers will reduce the nitrogen that runs off during rain. EANY recommends that the bill be extended to cover all of NY state and not be delayed to Dec 31, 2021.

Update: Currently in the Environmental Committee in the Assembly. 

Although the focus of the seminar was on drinking water contaminates, other topics of concern for our water quality were brought up as well; the drop in the aquifer, nitrogen levels and the sewage discharge, lead pipe run off, salt intrusions and septic systems were also noted as major issues affecting water quality. The importance of appropriate standards for detecting contamination was stressed.

Tyrand Fuller of the Suffolk County Water Authority described the water quality mapping and database project known as WaterTraq. It tracks potential threats in the water supply and provides supply information to the public and regulators. It has an interactive map providing the status of LI groundwater for health officials, industry professionals and the public and provides both untreated (raw) water test results and treated water that is sent to the public. http://liaquifercommission.com/watertraq.html.

Another way to find out information about the water quality in your community is at the Suffolk County Water Authority’s Water Quality Report website: http://s1091480.instanturl.net/2019waterreport/water-quality-by-distribution-area-2019-scwa_index.html.

Our fellow Suffolk County residents must be more aware of how fragile and difficult it is to safeguard the quality of our drinking waters. We must continue to educate ourselves and speak loudly for support of legislation dealing with our water crisis. For a list of conference speakers as well as additional resources from expert sites on our drinking water, visit http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org/TakeAction.html.

Stephanie Quarles is a director of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

New standards will require school districts in New York state to test for lead in water. File photo

By Rebecca Anzel

Drinking water in public schools across the state will soon conclude testing for lead contamination. Legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in September makes New York the first state to mandate such testing.

The law established a level of lead allowed in drinking water, initial and future testing requirements for schools and deadlines for notifying parents and staff of results.

“These rigorous new protections for New York’s children include the toughest lead contamination testing standards in the nation and provide clear guidance to schools on when and how they should test their water,” Cuomo said in a press release.

Schools are more likely to have raised lead levels because intermittent use of water causes extended water contact with plumbing fixtures. Those installed before 1986, when federal laws were passed to restrict the amount of lead allowed in materials, might have a higher amount of lead.

“We know how harmful lead can be to the health and well-being of young children, and that’s why the Senate insisted on testing school water for lead,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement. “As a result, New York becomes the first state in the nation to perform this testing and protect millions of its students from potential health risks.”

Lead consumption by children is especially harmful because behavioral and physical effects, such as brain damage and reduced IQ, happen at lower levels of exposure, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Even low levels of lead exposure can cause hearing loss, nervous system damage and learning disabilities.

“We know how harmful lead can be to the health and well-being of young children, and that’s why the Senate insisted on testing school water for lead.”

—John Flanagan

In adults, lead can cause damage to the reproductive system, kidneys and cardiovascular system.

The new law required schools teaching children in prekindergarten through fifth grade to test drinking water by Sept. 30 and schools with children from grades six through 12 to complete testing by the end of October.

This affects in excess of 700 school districts and 37 BOCES locations in the state, consisting of more than 5,000 school buildings, according to the state. Private schools are exempt from this testing.

Any lead level exceeding 15 micrograms per liter must be reported by the school to the local health department within one business day. Schools are also mandated to share the test results with parents and staff in writing and to publish a list of lead-free buildings on their websites.

Glenn Neuschwender, president of Enviroscience Consultants, a Ronkonkoma-based environmental consulting firm, said to a certain extent, these deadlines are a challenge, especially those pertaining to the test results.

“I’ve been speaking to the county health department — they’re currently not prepared to receive that data,” Neuschwender said in a phone interview. “The same would go for the state Department of Health. They’re not currently prepared to start receiving data yet, but they’ve told me that they will be within the coming weeks.”

The cost of a lead analysis ranges from $20 to $75 per sample and must be conducted by a laboratory approved by the Environmental Laboratory Approval Program. Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Holbrook and Pace Analytical Services in Melville are two approved labs, according to the state Department of Health.

If the level of lead in a sample exceeds what the law allows, the school is required to prohibit the use of that faucet until further testing shows the issue is rectified. The law also requires schools to conduct testing every five years.

“The law is certainly, I would say, a work in progress,” Neuschwender said. “The law is very short in discussing remediation — it’s more specific to sampling and action-level objectives — so we expect to see some clarification on the remediation side of things as the law is revised.”

Port Jefferson school district conducted voluntary testing of fixtures throughout the district this summer before Cuomo signed the law, and found small amounts of lead in nine locations. All nine fixtures have been replaced, according to Fred Koelbel, district plant facilities administrator.

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Port Jefferson high school could look very different in the coming years if a $30M bond proposal is approved by the community. File photo by Elana Glowatz

After the highly publicized discovery of lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, Port Jefferson School District decided not to leave the safety of its students and staff to chance.

The district employed Ronkonkoma-based environmental consulting firm Enviroscience Consultants Inc. to conduct a district-wide test for lead in drinking water this summer. The firm released results of the testing in a report dated June 28.

A total of 126 water fixtures were tested across Edna Louise Spear Elementary, Port Jefferson Middle School and Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. Traces of lead large enough to require action were found in nine locations, according to the report.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a reaction starting essentially with Flint, Michigan. But our response to it is going to be proactive. We have to make sure that there isn’t any danger while [students are] at school.” — Paul Casciano

At the middle school, a first-floor water fountain, two sinks in science labs and a kitchen sink had lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” threshold for lead in water is 20 parts per billion, as listed in in its 2006 guide entitled “3T’s for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools.” At the high school, sinks in the third-floor faculty bathroom, an athletic coaching office and a science lab, as well as a spigot in an athletic office and a water fountain in a wood shop, showed lead levels higher than 15 parts per billion. All nine fixtures have been removed and either replaced or will be replaced, according to District Facilities Administrator Fred Koelbel.

In water sources like sinks in science labs or bathrooms, school districts are permitted to note with a sign that the water shouldn’t be used for drinking, but Port Jefferson opted to remove such fixtures anyway.

“The district response here is at the top of the curve,” Enviroscience Consultants President Glenn Neuschwender said in an interview to the district’s choice to adhere to stricter standards than those laid out by the EPA, and their decision to opt for removal of the fixtures instead of signs. “This board has taken the highest level of conservatism when it comes to protecting the kids.”

Neuschwender stressed levels found in Port Jefferson are not remotely close to those found in places like Flint and fall below some action-required thresholds other than the EPA. Still, he suggested concerned parents take action.

“You have to have a discussion with your child,” he said. “Do you use that fountain? If they don’t, the discussion is kind of over. If they say ‘yeah, I use it from time to time,’ then the only sure way to find out if your child has been impacted is to have a blood-lead test.”

According to the report, lead can impact every organ of the human body, though it is most harmful for the central nervous system. Low levels can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems, among other problems. High levels can result in neurological problems or even death.

Koelbel said a comprehensive test on this level had not been conducted in recent years though concerns in 1985 prompted the district to replace fixtures at the elementary school. None of the locations tested at Edna Louise Spear yielded results that required action.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Paul Casciano said he understands parents’ concerns, though the district plans to be upfront and forthright about its findings and subsequent action.

“We feel that we’re being more cautious, replacing sinks as opposed to putting up a sign,” he said. “Obviously all of the lead testing is a reaction so I won’t say we’re proactive. We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a reaction starting essentially with Flint, Michigan. But our response to it is going to be proactive. We have to make sure that there isn’t any danger while they’re at school.”

Casciano called the replacements an unanticipated but not prohibitive cost.

“Anything that protects the safety of students is worth the expense,” he said.

Koelbel said the district is planning to test the replaced fixtures in the coming weeks, though no plans currently exist for a second comprehensive, districtwide test.

He added that the district is in the process of replacing a few drinking fountains each year with filtered water stations that contain a reservoir to chill water and are designed to make filling bottles easier. Four of the stations already exist in the district.

This version was updated to correct the EPA’s action-level threshold for lead in water.

Left to right, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. John Flanagan discuss the plan. Photo from Cuomo’s office

Keeping the state’s drinking water clean and safe is a subject anyone can get behind, and New York lawmakers across both major parties did just that.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a series of aggressive water quality initiatives last week in the company of elected officials representing the North Shore in an attempt to better protect public health and the environment. His proposals received great praise from both Democrats and Republicans as a common-sense way to keep New York’s water clean.

“Every New Yorker has a fundamental right to clean and safe drinking water,” Cuomo said. “Water is a priceless resource that requires the highest levels of protection, and I am proud to continue this administration’s legacy of standing up for the environment. We are taking aggressive and proactive steps to ensure clean and healthy communities throughout the state — both for current residents and for generations to come.”

Joining Cuomo at a Stony Brook University discussion on the state’s newest water initiatives were Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and more. At that discussion, Cuomo pitched his statewide water quality rapid response team, which he said would work to identify and develop plans to address critical drinking water contamination concerns as well as groundwater and surface water contamination problems.

“It’s imperative that we all work together at the local, state and federal levels to protect the public health,” Bellone said. “The actions that Governor Cuomo has announced today are demonstrating unequivocally that New York is taking proactive measures to not just meet that standard, but to really raise the bar on the protection of water quality.”

Cuomo said the rapid response team would be working to develop a comprehensive action plan to immediately address water quality issues raised by municipalities and concerned citizens, taking on matters ranging from currently regulated contaminants like lead, to emerging contaminants, like perfluorooctanoic acid. It was a plan that his fellow lawmakers said was easy to get behind.

“We are blessed in New York State and on Long Island to have the availability of high-quality drinking water, but we also have a responsibility to protect it,” Flanagan said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important to New Yorkers and their families than the air they breathe and the water they drink.”

The team will also review and incorporate the best available science and may include new review standards for currently unregulated contaminants, enhanced testing and oversight of drinking water systems, including private wells, and state-of-the-art drinking water treatment options.

“Creating an agenda to safeguard the quality of Long Island’s water source is great news — not only for the health of New Yorkers — but for the environment as well,” Englebright said. “Governor Cuomo’s work to ensure that every New Yorker has access to safe, clean drinking water is a testament to his commitment to statewide public health. The implementation of a water quality rapid response team is a proactive way to protect the environment from harmful water contamination and keep New Yorkers’ drinking water clean and safe.”

The discussion over drinking water came in the weeks following a horrific drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where officials have been scrambling to combat unsafe and potentially life-threatening water contaminations.

The governor also proposed regulations to be imposed on mulch-processing facilities to safeguard natural resources. Cuomo said the Department of Environmental Conservation would propose for public comment draft regulations for mulch facilities to increase oversight and provide enhanced safeguards. The proposed regulations would require facilities to establish water runoff management plans to protect groundwater and place restrictions on pile size and storage to reduce the risk of fires, odor and dust.

Kara Hahn’s prescription medicine take-back proposal aims to enhance Long Island’s drinking water quality

A two-tiered piece of legislation on the county level is looking to tackle some of Long Island’s most pressing issues, from the medicine counter to the waterways, all in one fell swoop.

A proposal to establish a drug stewardship program throughout the county could potentially build upon existing drug take-back programs, playing off recent legislation enacted in Alameda County, California, and ultimately keep drugs out of our drinking water, lawmakers said. Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) introduced the piece of legislation earlier this summer with hopes of providing residents with more convenient ways to get rid of their unused medicine before the county’s next general meeting in October.

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn is pushing a bill to make it easier to get rid of leftover medicine. File photo
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn is pushing a bill to make it easier to get rid of leftover medicine. File photo

“This is a duel benefit,” Hahn said. “I’ve wanted to find a way to get pharmacies to be required to take back prescription drugs, and this doesn’t quite require that, but it could be an end result.”

The local law proposal argued that while pharmaceuticals are essential to the treatment of illnesses and long-term conditions, residents at large still do not dispose of them properly, running the risk of certain drugs ending up in public drinking water supplies and causing harm to the environment. And with Suffolk County sitting on top of a sole source aquifer, which provides residents with necessary drinking water, Hahn argued that protecting the aquifer was critical to the health and safety of Long Island as a whole.

“The idea is to begin a discussion on this. Federal regulations have changed to allow pharmacies to take back certain drugs, but the state level has been dragging their feet on the local regulations in order to make this possible here,” Hahn said. “They can’t drag their feet any longer. All kinds of medicines are being found in our water when our health inspectors do their sampling. We have to find a way on both these fronts to control what is happening.”

The legislator said she was playing off the recently passed law in California, which also established a drug product stewardship policy requiring manufacturers to design and fund collection programs for medications. Similar programs have also sprouted up in Canada, France, Spain and Portugal.

A spokesman for Hahn said the bill would essentially establish a manufacturer-administered pharmaceutical take-back program that would provide residents with convenient ways to safely and environmentally responsibly dispose of expired and unneeded medications.

“This program, if adopted, will primarily impact and improve water quality rather than deal with drug abuse,” Seth Squicciarino, the spokesman, said. “However, it is reasonable to assume that if there are less unused, unneeded and forgotten prescription drugs in medicine cabinets, it could reduce drug experimentation especially among first time users.”

Currently, residents’ only course of action when looking to properly dispose of unused medicine is to bring their prescriptions to the 4th Precinct or 6th Precinct of the Suffolk County Police Department, which then dumps the drugs into an incinerator — which Hahn described as the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of drugs right now.

Geese hang out on the banks of Lake Ronkonkoma. Their waste pollutes the lake. Photo by Phil Corso

Long Island’s largest freshwater lake is not what it used to be, but North Shore lawmakers and educators are teaming up to bring it back.

Darcy Lonsdale and her students attending the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences arrived at the docks of the 243-acre Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday morning, equipped with various aquatic testing supplies to study marine life in the waters. Bill Pfeiffer, part of the Nesconset Fire Department’s water rescue team, helped guide the students as residents and government officials flanked the docks in talks of a Lake Ronkonkoma that once was.

Pfeiffer has been diving in and exploring around Lake Ronkonkoma for years, mapping out the bottom of the lake and chronicling the different kinds of debris on its floor, which he said includes anything from parts of old amusement park rides to pieces of docks.

Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso
Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso

“This lake needs a healthy amount of attention,” he said. “It has been appearing clearer, but [Superstorm] Sandy turned it into a brown mud hole again.”

The lake is home to various species, including largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

Members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Advisory Task Force hosted Pfeiffer and the students with hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the waters and encouraging the four jurisdictions overseeing it — Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown towns and Suffolk County — to form one united board to advocate for the lake.

Newly elected county Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the goal was to compile data that will help secure grant money, channel stormwater runoff away from the lake and garner legislative support for the lake.

“Years ago, this was a resort. There were tons of beachfronts. There were cabins and cabanas,” she said. “This is something we all could be proud of. It could be a site where people recreate.”

Looking ahead, Kennedy said she hoped a united front could attract more foot traffic and fishing to the lake. She stood along the waters on Tuesday morning and said she was anxious to see the kinds of results the Stony Brook students help to find.

“I am dying to know what the pH levels are at the bottom of the lake,” she said.

Lawmakers and Lake Ronkonkoma advocates said one of the biggest hurdles in the way of cleaner waters rested in the population of geese gaggling around the area. As more geese make their way in and around the lake, the nitrogen in their waste pollutes the water. Volunteers with the Lake Ronkonkoma civic had to sweep the length of the dock Tuesday morning, as Pfeiffer prepared for the students, in order to rid it of geese excrement.

“To help the lake, relocating or terminating some of the geese might not be a bad idea,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said.

The students could be funneling data to the different municipalities overseeing the lake by the end of the summer.

“You want a report that will spell out how to improve the clarity of this water,” Romaine said. “The students are welcome back anytime.”