A “few hundred gallons” of oil leaked from a severed fuel line 500 feet from a New Paltz reservoir this winter, the suspected cause of the community’s petroleum-scented water that prompted officials to issue a ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory Monday morning.
However, eight water samples tested so far – four by the New York State Department of Health and four by a private company employed by the Village of New Paltz – came back as safe to drink.
However, residents hooked up to the Town and Village of New Paltz’s municipal water system should still not drink the water, nor cook with it or use it to make ice, officials cautioned.
This new information came Wednesday, the third day of New Paltz’s ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory, at a press conference with local, county and state officials, and at the village’s regular board meeting that evening.
Residents began complaining of a kerosene or natural gas odor to their water over the weekend. A spill report was filed with the Department of Environmental Conservation Tuesday morning for the reservoir now believed to be the source of the noxious odor.
Life in the community of 14,000 has been disrupted by the on-going advisory. Stores were cleared out of bottled water early in the advisory, the SUNY New Paltz campus shuttered for at least a week, and some businesses temporarily closed.
More than 40,000 gallons of water have been deployed to the community by the state, according to the Governor’s Office, including in 6,000-gallon tankers.
A third-party contractor is believed to have damaged an underground fuel line last year while installing pipes between a holding pond and the New Paltz’s Water Treatment Plant, according to New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers, and the line began slowly leaking fuel into the ground when the plant’s oil heater was turned on this winter.
The line is about 500 feet from the reservoir, Rogers said.
The severed line was supposed to return unburned oil from the furnace back to the oil tank, and therefore the leak did not result in any disruption in the heating system and was not detected until officials dug up the line Tuesday night, according to Rogers.
A photograph of the unearthed line reviewed by The Other Hudson Valley shows a thin, completely severed tube with a puddle of fuel around it.
Rogers would not yet say who the third-party contractor was, nor whether they would face any liability.
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said at the press conference samples taken from residences and storage towers in the community showed there were “non-detectable levels of petroleum compounds.”
“Nondetectable levels” means petroleum compounds are present at minute levels or do not exist at all, according to state Department of Health Regional Environmental Health Director Christine Westerman.
New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, who is also a working ecologist, explained “nondetectable levels” are so low instruments are unable to measure their concentrations.
“Those levels are far below what the health department has determined is safe to drink,” he added.
When asked why residents were able to taste or smell a difference in their water, Bettez said he understood that human sensory organs were able to pick up levels of these impurities instruments could not accurately measure.
Even so, Executive Ryan said the ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory would continue as further testing was performed.
New Paltz Reservoir Number 4, where a sheen on the water’s surface prompted the DEC to investigate Tuesday, was bypassed and isolated the Sunday before the spill was reported, as officials tried to determine the source of the malodorous water detected by residents, Mayor Rogers said.
After Reservoir Number Four was isolated, New Paltz’s water came only from the three other municipal reservoirs, then started coming exclusively from the Catskill Reservoir noon Wednesday, Rogers said.
New Paltz now has the option to pipe water from its three functioning reservoirs or the aqueduct, he added.
Executive Ryan said parts of the water system were being flushed, then more samples would be taken.
The ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory would stay in place for the near future, Ryan added, “out of an abundance of caution.”
An advisory sent to SUNY New Paltz students Monday by the university president stating brushing one’s teeth with the water was fine was pushed back on by Westerman when it was questioned.
Her office didn’t specifically say whether or not brushing teeth was safe in their guidance, Westerman said.
“I would be concerned very much with a toddler or somebody who’s going swallow the water while they’re brushing their teeth,” she said. “Out of an abundance of caution, it would be good to brush your teeth with bottled water.”
The ‘Do Not Drink’ advisory stating it was fine to bathe in the water – issued before officials knew what the smell was – was based on complaints the water smelled like a type of volatile organic compound, such as oil, which does not damage human health upon skin contact, Westerman said.
The fuel line has been shut off, but the reservoir is 500 feet away, suggesting a large volume of earth had been compromised with fuel oil on its way to the water body.
There is a real possibility Reservoir Number 4 would have to be drained during remediation, New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin said Monday night.
However, the community would be able to get their full water needs met by the Catskill Aqueduct and the three other local reservoirs.
It is currently unknown when the water advisory would be lifted.
“The best-case scenario is [Thursday], we can give the best-case scenario,” Tobin said.