We must protect our drinking water


We all worry about drinking water — homeowners and business people alike — and why shouldn’t we?

Flint, Mich., has become the poster city for water contamination, but closer to home, toxic chemicals have been discovered in the water supplies of New York communities like Newburgh, Hoosick Falls and Buffalo. And Long Island has a long history of coping with endangered water supplies. They’ve even become top issues in contests like East Hampton’s recent village election.

Local action is important, but it’s not enough. Especially now, when the Environmental Protection Agency is dismantling federal drinking water protections across the country, the state must act with urgency and bring to fruition Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s commitment to upgrade New York’s aging water infrastructure and safeguard our public health, environment and economy.

We applaud Cuomo’s historic financial appropriation of $2.5 billion and the establishment of a Drinking Water Quality Council tasked with advising the state Department of Health. It’s an important step, but the wheels of advisory councils can grind exceedingly slowly, and New Yorkers can’t wait until the next emergency event or the discovery of long-term poisoning of a trusted water source to enact smart, enforceable regulations of potential contaminants.

The drinking water council is currently determining maximum allowable levels of 1,4-dioxane; perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA; and perfluorooctyl sulfonate, or PFOS — potential carcinogens that also affect liver, thyroid and immune system functions. The council is to make its recommendations by early this fall, within a year of its first meeting.

A recently released report on federally advised maximum levels of these contaminants, delayed for political reasons by the EPA, finds the agency’s suggested maximum levels of PFOA and PFOS to be seven to 10 times too high. New York must act swiftly and set its own regulatory levels.

Long Island residents should be particularly concerned with 1,4-dioxane, a solvent stabilizer that’s found in personal care products. According to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the nation’s highest levels of this potential carcinogen have been found in Nassau and Suffolk county water.

Also troubling, PFOA and PFOS — used in firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing and greaseproof food packaging — have been found in Long Island water systems, especially near manufacturing sites, airports and military bases. Voluntary blood testing for these chemicals is under way now in Suffolk County.

One encouraging development is the lawsuit initiated by Cuomo and Attorney General Barbara Underwood against several chemical makers to recover the money spent addressing PFOS and PFOA contamination. Holding the polluter accountable sends a strong message to manufacturers that the state is serious about protecting its drinking water and public health.

Here on Long Island, many businesses — including farms, vineyards, breweries, restaurants and manufacturers — depend on an abundant, sustainable supply of clean water. Most see effective, strong regulations not as a burden, but as a necessity.

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of respondents to an American Sustainable Business Council poll — including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents — believe that clean water protection spurs economic growth. Just 6 percent believe it is too burdensome.

Business plays a critical role in protecting our water. Many on Long Island and around the country are already taking steps to reduce their water footprint, improving both the efficiency and the environmental quality of their operations.

The most exemplary companies are taking action not just at their own facilities, but also at the larger, watershed level, sharing the challenges and risks with many players to improve water management and protection.

This isn’t just altruism. It’s common sense. When the public is vulnerable to water contamination, businesses are vulnerable, too, with lost employee productivity, higher costs — including water rates to mitigate the effects of pollution — and interruptions in services. Clearly, both business and government play essential roles in securing a clean, reliable and abundant water supply now and in the future.

Successful protection will come from a combination of public and private investment, smart regulations and market-based solutions, but for the work to accelerate here in New York, the Drinking Water Quality Council must not get bogged down in political delay. It must be smart, stringent, and transparent in determining the maximum contaminant levels of PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane to protect us against these well-documented threats.

Hilary Baum is the program director of the New York Sustainable Business Council, an affiliate of the American Sustainable Business Council that represents over 2,000 businesses and business organizations that are committed to advancing a vibrant, just and sustainable economy in New York state.