In Hoosick Falls, water crisis sparks activism

Jul 18, 2016

Children from Hoosick Falls hold signs with their blood contamination levels.
Credit @pfoaprojectny1

In January, we took you to the small, rural village of Hoosick Falls, which was grappling with elevated levels of the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the water supply.

In the months that followed, residents expressed confusion, frustration and even anger over the inconsistent communication between those affected and their state and local governments.

Resident Robert Allen said the issue of water safety goes well beyond his tiny village.  

“We need the dialogue to be elevated on this issue. It needs to not be a small New York area or a large New York area; this needs to be a national dialogue on water.”

Allen is a father of four and a music teacher in the Hoosick Falls School District. Like other residents, he was frustrated with the water supply situation. A colleague suggested he watch a Gov. Andrew Cuomo administration PSA featuring actor Mark Ruffalo on YouTube praising the governor’s success ensuring a safe, clean environment.

“Hi, I’m Mark Ruffalo, and I’m a proud New Yorker. Clean air, clean water, uncontaminated food, taking our kids to parks that are safe, these are all things that we take for granted, but we have to fight for them if we want to preserve them for future generations.”

Allen describes seeing the video as “shocking,” considering his New York community did not have clean water. So he made his own PSA.

“Hi, I’m Rob Allen and I’m a proud New Yorker. Clean air, clean water, uncontaminated foods, taking our kids to parks that are safe are things we used to take for granted. But here in Hoosick Falls, where dumping of the cancer-causing chemical PFOA has resulted in the contamination of our water supply, we have realized that we have to fight for our own well-being. We want to guarantee it for future generations.”

Allen said the community had to speak up.

“From our perspective in Hoosick Falls, where we’ve been shouting for months and months and months, the people were the ones to say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here,’ the people identified it, we’ve been advocating all this time and the government had just been dragging their feet for so long.”

The frustration had been simmering for months when it was revealed in a Politico exposé that officials from the governor to the village mayor knew of the dangerously high chemical contamination. For residents like Lorrianne Hackett, that frustration then boiled into anger.

“First we were irritated about that, finding out that the Department of Health fought with the EPA to tell us to stop drinking the water. So we were already kind of enflamed about that, and then the envelopes came.”

Those envelopes, from the state Department of Health, addressed individually to every man, woman and child, contained the PFOA parts per trillion found in each person’s blood. Several residents, including most children, tested well above the EPA advised baseline of 70 parts per trillion.

That, coupled with a sense of inaction from a government that declined to hold hearings on the matter, was too much for Hackett.

“We decided, if they’re not going to listen to us, they’re going to see us.”

Hackett and friend Michelle Baker launched the Twitter account @pfoaprojectny1, featuring images of Hoosick Falls residents holding up cards with their health department-tested blood contamination levels.

“I talked about it with my family, and my daughter and son-in-law agreed we’ll do these pictures. How can you not look at a 6-year-old with a 142 PFOA contamination level? If you won’t hear us, you’re going to see us.”

In June, Hackett and a group of residents from the village, town and surrounding area took those images with them to the Capitol along with Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin to push the legislature to hold public hearings on the government’s handling of the contamination.

“A hearing is to hear from people, and if in fact there was wrongdoing, then I ask you what is wrong with saying there was wrongdoing?” McLaughlin said. “Why do we hold hearings ever on anything? Why pass bills? Most of the bills we pass are to hold people responsible for something that either happened and we’re addressing it or we don’t want to happen. So I don’t understand why we have this mantra in this building of, well we can hold hearings, but God forbid we hold anybody responsible. If that’s what comes out of the hearings, then so be it.”

Immediately after their news conference, the Hoosick Falls residents got a closed-door audience with Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations. WXXI’s Karen DeWitt was the pool reporter.

Malatras said the governor’s response was to get as many facts as possible and “get as many resources as you can to the community.”

Allen called the meeting a good start, even though it didn’t result in any official promise of a hearing, continued biomonitoring or finding an alternative water source. It did give them a sense of what was being done and why.

“This kind of testing is very specific and tricky and there are very few places in the country that do this, but they are working on their own approach to testing so that they can do this in a more faster way.”

For Allen, what he’d really like his government to clarify is what those blood test levels mean, so that as biomonitoring continues, families don’t have to try and comprehend form letters from the Department of Health.

“We opened mine first, ’cause how bad would it be? It was in the 50s, which I didn’t expect. Then we opened my wife’s, which was a great, great low number, and I was relieved to see that. And then I said, ‘All right, let’s to go my youngest.’ When she was tested, she was under two and how high could it be? 112. It was over twice my score.

“That was hard, I’ll never forget that moment. I didn’t have much to say after that. And then we went through each kid and found out that the younger the child, the higher their number was. So all of my kids have numbers well above mine, and that was scary.”

No one, Allen said, has been able to clarify exactly what those PFOA blood levels mean.

Since the news conference, it appears the call for hearings has been heeded.

On July 8, the state Senate announced it would hold hearings about the Hoosick Falls contamination in August. Just days earlier, the state Assembly had said it would conduct water-quality hearings.

Additionally, the Congressional Oversight Committee has begun an inquiry and is demanding the Cuomo administration hand over all documents and communications related to Hoosick Falls and PFOA from May 2014 to present.