Toxic taps

Inside Uniondale's war for clean water


Water, a fundamental human right and the essence of life, should be a source of sustenance and security for every community. At least that is what most would expect in the richest nation on earth.

Yet, a stark reality has hit home for residents who attended last weekend's Greater Uniondale Area Action Coalition meeting — the assurance of clean and safe water, a basic necessity, is anything but universal.

The meeting, which focused on Uniondale’s water quality, shed some light on the situation residents are dealing with. According to the coalition, the issue was raised by George Wagner, a resident who often complained about rust-colored water coming from his faucets and who attributed a slew of health issues, including cancer — and that of his neighbors — to its use.

The coalition had Wagner’s water tested by an independent Nassau County lab, which detected high levels of iron, arsenic and ammonia. It also found elevated levels of PFAs, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, chemicals used in a variety of industrial and consumer products, such as firefighting foam and nonstick cookware.

These chemicals can cause health issues such as cancer, organ damage, and more. Although the levels of these contaminants found do not exceed the legal limits allowed, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a national non-profit organization that focuses on environmental and public health issues, research, and advocacy — legality does not equate to safety.

“Legal does not necessarily mean safe,” explains the EWG website, “getting a passing grade from the state and federal government does not mean the water meets the latest health guidelines as the government’s legal limits are not health-protective.”

EWG also ran its own study on the Town of Hempstead’s water quality in 2021, using Uniondale’s tap water as their source for the research. The EWG found a total of 45 contaminants, none exceeding legal limits but nine exceeding the organization’s own health guidelines for safe consumption.

On top of this, the most recent water quality report from 2022 reveals the town found high levels of a known carcinogen in Uniondale’s water, 1,4-dioxane, another powerful cancer causing chemical. However in the report, although admitting the levels found are above the state's maximum contaminant level for this specific chemical, the next sentence assures residents that the levels detected are still safe for consumption and “does not pose a significant health risk.”

According to their report, the town has been attempting to address the high levels of the chemical they found and are working to remove it from the water supply, which is also affecting other neighboring communities such as Levittown, East Meadow, and Roosevelt.

“Hempstead has been working with Long Island's leading engineering professionals in the water treatment industry,” the town said in their report, “to construct the necessary treatment systems to remove this compound from our water.”

But, Pearl Jacobs, a community leader and president of the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association, is not happy with the town’s efforts regarding their water quality.

“Why does every single thing in Uniondale need to be fought for?,” asked Jacobs, “who is looking out for Uniondale? It is definitely not our elected officials, we always have to look out for ourselves.”

Jacobs claims that John Reinhardt, the commissioner of the Town of Hempstead’s water department, admitted to her that Uniondale’s water towers have not been updated or maintained in over 25 years — twice as long as they are supposed to go without maintenance. “When I was at the meeting last month, I asked the water commissioner about tower maintenance, and he said, ’Usually they’re refurbished every 15 years, but Uniondale’s water towers have not been done in over 25 years.’”

Water towers that are not maintained for long periods of time, like Uniondale’s allegedly are, can accumulate sediment — which are tiny particles like dirt, sand, and rocks that settle at the bottom of water, affecting water quality and turning the water a rusty brown color, much like Wagner, Jacobs and others have reported.
Jacobs said she has called the town to report the issue of rusty-brown water more than once.
“I turned on the sink and shower, and my water was brown, “ Jacobs said. She explains that shortly after she called the town to report the issue, they came and flushed out the fire hydrant on her cul-de-sac for over an hour and a half.

“This is not a ‘let your water run for 15 minutes’ situation,” Jacobs explained, “when they were flushing it out, it was like a dark, copper brown and after they finished, my water remained with a light brown tint for a week and a half,” she continued.

Jacobs also says that she sent Reinhardt a video of the brown water she had been experiencing. “I sent him a video of the water and he says, ‘that is just iron, and iron is actually good for you,’” she claims.

Reinhardt has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the allegations against him or on the water quality of Uniondale by press time. However, at the town board meeting on Tuesday morning, Reinhardt said the town has decided to settle on a number of lawsuits they are facing over the PFAs in its drinking water, but assured residents that they have been, and are still actively, taking measures to address its presence.

Reinhardt also said there are plans to update the water tower near Turtle Hook Middle School in 2025, which is part of the East Meadow water district. “Only one tower can be done at a time because I can’t take more than one tower off at a time,” he explained, “we base our maintenance on the conditions and the tower behind Turtle Hook is next on the list based on those conditions, and after that, the Hempstead Boulevard tower will be next.”

“2025 is unacceptable to me,” said Jacobs, “the water towers are in horrific conditions — there's no political intent here. To me, this is environmental racism.”

There is currently no timetable as to when these additional updates will happen to the Hempstead Boulevard tower, no real update available on whether or not Uniondale’s water still contains elevated levels of the cancer causing chemical detected by the town in 2022, or any word on if there are plans to address the chemicals found in the independent studies.