State Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, has introduced legislation that would hold companies accountable for contaminating Long Island’s drinking water and ensure that the cost of eradicating those contaminants is recouped from polluters and not passed on to ratepayers.
The bill seeks to extend the statute of limitations for public water authorities to sue polluters to three years, and clarifies ambiguous language to enforce the statute from the first detection of contamination. “When water authorities or districts attempt to sue polluters, many of the lawsuits are thrown out of court because of a technical issue revolving around the statute of limitations,” Gaughran said. “This legislation eliminates the loophole for polluters.”
In 2017, the Herald Gazette reported that trace amounts of the chemical 1,4-dioxane, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “likely to be carcinogenic,” were found in water supplied by dozens of Long Island water districts. According to a study released by the Citizens Campaign for the Environment that year, dioxane gets into the water through products that contain it, including laundry detergent, soap, shampoo and body wash. Once the compound gets into the groundwater, it is hard to remove.
As former chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority, Gaughran worked to develop an advanced oxidation process treatment system to remove 1,4-dioxane from groundwater. In 2017, the system, the first of its kind in New York, was approved to begin service. At the time it was expected to remove more than 97 percent of the compound from groundwater. The system uses ultraviolet oxidation to break up the compound and nearly eliminate it, Gaughran said. The system is expensive, however. According to the SCWA, the cost to construct an AOP system at just one well is roughly $1.2 million, and it costs about $100,000 a year to operate.
Gaughran said he hoped water districts could use the winnings from lawsuits brought against polluters to offset the costs of adding AOP treatment systems to their infrastructure. Chuck Savinetti, the superintendent of the Locust Valley Water District, said that extending the statute of limitations would be a win for water suppliers as well as consumers.
“We’re in the process of one suit now, and we’re not alone. There are at least 10 other water districts litigating for certain chemicals on Long Island,” Savinetti said. “The statute of limitations is very important because it takes time to figure out what the impact of a chemical is, who manufactured that chemical and what the cost [of treating it] is going to be.”
The legislation comes amid talks at the state level to set allowable limits for unregulated contaminants that have been found in local drinking water supplies. In December, the Drinking Water Quality Council recommended that the State Department of Health adopt protective maximum contaminant levels for perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, perfluorooctanoic acid and 1,4-dioxane. According to the DOH, once a maximum contaminant level is established, it creates a legally enforceable standard that requires water systems to monitor, report findings and keep contaminants below the level set.
The department is expected to adopt the recommendations in the coming months, but Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said that New Yorkers can no longer wait. “The state needs to move swiftly to create a drinking water standard for these chemicals so that the public is protected,” Esposito said. “Right now people are drinking poisons in their water, and it needs to stop.”
In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $200 million in grant funding to help communities address federally unregulated contaminants in their drinking water, but because only public water authorities are eligible for state assistance, private authorities like New York American Water would not receive funding.
NYAW’s vice president of operations, Rich Kern, said the company continuously samples its wells for the presence of 1,4-dioxane to ensure active monitoring of any potential impacts to the water supply. “Test results for 1,4-dioxane in both of our North Shore service territory supply wells have shown results of ‘non-detect,’” Kern said. “While we are fortunate there is no new treatment needed at these sites at this time, we will continue to remain vigilant to ensure the safety of the community’s water supply.”
Gaughran scheduled a meeting in Glen Head this week to field residents’ concerns about NYAW, and discuss potential legislative solutions to address the situation. The meeting was set for Thursday at 7 p.m. at Glenwood Landing Elementary School, at 60 Cody Ave.