Dr. Sarah Meyland, the director of the New York Institute of Technology’s Center for Water Resources Management, appeared before the Friends of the Bay in Oyster Bay on Sept. 26, and Meyland told the group that Long Island’s drinking water is the most contaminated in New York state.
Meanwhile, Malvernite James Schimmenti, who lives on Ambrose Avenue, said the water quality on his block has been poor for the past four years. Several of his neighbors have died from some form of cancer in recent years, Schimmenti said, including his wife, Ann, who died in November.
“My wife suffered for four years,” he said at the village’s Oct. 2 board meeting. “We have to get Malverne village residents to sign a petition so that the state has to do something.”
Long Island’s drinking water comes from underground aquifers hundreds of feet below the surface. Many people mistakenly believe that the sand and soil through which rainwater passes on the way to the aquifers removes contaminants, Meyland said. While bacteria, dirt and small solids are filtered, solvents and certain chemicals are not. Perfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, and 1,4 dioxane are among the chemicals that remain.
Dioxane is a chlorinated solvent stabilizer, widely used to increase the effectiveness of chemicals in antifreeze, soap, cosmetics and more. Its hexagonal atomic structure is difficult to break down, so water contaminated with it is difficult to treat. It is known to cause cancer in animals, likely causes cancer in humans and can affect the kidney, liver, bladder, lungs, colon, nasal cavity and skeletal muscles.
Schimmenti said that it has been 15 months since he wrote a letter to the state Department of Health urging it to study the water on his block, but nothing has happened. Malverne Mayor Keith Corbett said he hoped to persuade the state department to conduct a study in the near future.
“Whether it’s a letter-writing campaign or this board standing in front of a camera,” Corbett said, “we need to have that done, because that’s a lot fatalities and a lot of cancer in a very small area.”
The state’s maximum contaminant level of dioxane is one part per billion, determined by the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council last December. At least 82 wells — the properties of 20 different water suppliers — exceed that limit, according to Meyland. Some 185 of the nearly 700 drinking water wells on Long Island may need treatment for dioxane, she said. Seventy-two percent of wells tested had some of the contaminant.
Treating water for dioxane can cost $4 million to $5 million, Meyland said. The state has allocated $350 million to treat wells, but Long Island falls short of needed funding by $482.5 million.
Common water treatments such as air stripping and granulated activated carbon are ineffective against dioxane. Instead, water suppliers must use advanced oxidation processes, which expose the chemical to hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light.
State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, said it’s difficult to keep up with demand for new technology because so many suppliers need it at once. The former chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority said the state Department of Environmental Conservation must approve all treatment systems in the development and pilot stages.
Gaughran said that a bill that would allow municipal water districts to sue polluters now awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. Lawsuits, the senator said, could recoup hundreds of millions of dollars from the polluters. Gaughran is also working to ban dioxane from household products.
“The bottom line is that no water system can deliver any water unless it meets the state and federal standards,” Gaughran said.
Scientists estimate there are between 3,000 and 5,000 varieties of PFAS chemicals — also known as “persistent chemicals” because of how slowly they break down. They are in paints, non-stick cookware and adhesives. If one is ingested, the human body needs eight years to get rid of half of the PFAS content, depending on the chemical. The chemicals can cause kidney, liver and testicular cancers, as well as reproductive issues and high cholesterol levels. PFAS chemicals also require new, expensive technology to treat them in drinking water.
Meyland said regulatory agencies on the state and federal levels have failed to implement strong enough protections. Additionally, she said regional management of groundwater is needed.
“The story of Long Island’s drinking water — the bottom line is it’s getting worse,” Meyland said. “Contaminants continue to be identified. Contamination itself is continuing.”
Meyland’s presentation “increased my alarm,” said Caroline DuBois, a Friends of the Bay volunteer and a former Oyster Bay Cove resident of 60 years. “The more you know, the more you realize it’s a huge problem.”
In Malverne, Corbett said that it’s a matter of getting the right public entities to pay attention. “I don’t want to wake up in 15 years and find out that the thresholds they had were too high, and that they should have been lower,” Corbett said. “It’s something we have to seriously look at.”
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