This story is co-published with The River, a regional newsroom from Chronogram magazine.
The complaints started in earnest February 8.
New Paltz residents detected something in their water. They posted on social media, talked to their neighbors, and phoned and messaged local officials describing an odor and taste like kerosene or natural gas.
A “Do Not Drink” advisory was issued on Monday, February 10 at about 9 a.m. It was lifted just after midnight that Friday. The intervening hours saw local officials scrambling to alert residents and find the source of the problem, while coordinating with the state as it trucked in more than 50,000 gallons of potable water.
Local officials said the recent water crises in Newburgh and Hoosick Falls were on their minds. Both of those communities struggled to have their voices heard, their problems addressed. Their crises appear to be more intractable then New Paltz’s, but local and state official’s rapid response earlier this month suggested the state has learned from the past.
New Paltz Village mayor Tim Rogers says he received the first water complaint on Tuesday, February 4. A second came two days later. Over the weekend, they multiplied, and local officials began to act.
First came the advisory, which warned people not to drink the water nor use it for cooking or making ice. It applied to everyone in the Village or Town of New Paltz’s water districts, which includes SUNY New Paltz—between 12,000 and 15,000 people total, according to deputy mayor KT Tobin.
The Village and Town of New Paltz are distinct municipalities, but they get their water from the same place: four municipal reservoirs in the foothills of the Shawangunk Ridge. The reservoirs are replenished by rainwater coming off the ridge, but the one farthest down the slope — Reservoir Number Four — also gets water from the Catskill Aqueduct, which also supplies water to High Falls, New Windsor, and 40 percent of New York City.
Town officials, including Mayor Rogers, initially feared the water might be tainted by recent work on the aqueduct, which was shut down from November 10 to January 27 so the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which controls the aqueduct, could remove organic build-up and make repairs, according to the Shawangunk Journal.
But the DEP said their normal testing showed nothing unusual, and no other community using the aqueduct reported strange odors or tastes, according to DEP spokesman Adam Bosch.
Nevertheless, the village decided to shut off water from Reservoir Number Four late Feb. 9. It then called in a 6,000-gallon tanker to the village hall parking lot by 2 p.m. on Monday, the first of several tankers brought in, though the rest came from the state.
Meanwhile, the village contacted regional media outlets and posted updates on its website and social media. Tobin fielded constituents’ concerns, taking each batch into consideration for the next update.
“One of the advantages of social media is, if a lot people are asking the same question, we know we need to reiterate or revise or assess where we at,” she said.
SUNY New Paltz’s 8,000 students received notice of the water advisory through the campus-wide email system the morning of Feb. 9, according to three students. The next day, the university cancelled classes after 3:30 p.m. and mandated all 2,800 on-campus students leave campus by noon the following day .
Two 6,000-gallon tankers were deployed to the campus by the state. One was used for drinking, while the other piped water into the dining hall so students unable to leave could still eat, albeit from a limited menu.
The decision to clear the campus was in part an attempt to take pressure off the surrounding community, according to a message sent to students, faculty, and staff by New Paltz president Donald Christian.
The town’s four pubic schools were closed Tuesday due to the advisory, but re-opened Wednesday after testing by the state Department of Health (DOH) found it was safe for students to return, though water fountains would be blocked off, according to a letter to parents by Interim Superintendent Bernard Josefsberg .
Lenape Elementary School, which gets its water from wells, would provide water for cooking to the three other schools, according to the letter. Dissatisfied parents signed a petition by the hundreds demanding the schools stay closed until the water was deemed safe.
Testing the Water
These samples and others taken in the following days were tested by the village’s water plant operator and the DOH. At least one came back positive for trace amounts of petroleum, Rogers says.
By nightfall on the advisory’s second day, some restaurants had reopened, using imported water to cook. But most students were gone.
Mayor Rogers confirmed the morning of the advisory’s second day that a DEC spill team had been dispatched to examine Reservoir Number Four after the village’s water treatment plant operator discovered a “sheen” on the reservoir.
The cause was found later that night. Reservoir Number Four sits within 200 feet of the water treatment plant it feeds, which is in the midst of a two-and-a-half year, $5.5-million upgrade.
DEC workers and local officials discovered an underground fuel line leading from the plant to an oil tank had been damaged, according to the Governor’s Office. A photograph of the unearthed line reviewed by The Other Hudson Valley shows a completely severed tube with black sludge puddling around it.
Town officials believe the line was severed last summer when a third-party contractor was installing pipes. The line returned unburnt oil to the tank from the treatment plant, so the heating system was not noticeably affected when the heat was turned on in the fall and the line began to leak, according to Rogers.
A “few hundred gallons” likely drained into the surrounding earth before oozing into the reservoir, Roger says.
This reservoir was cut off Sunday while town officials were theorizing the malodorous water was from the Catskill Aqueduct, and the tainted water stopped entering the system, according to Rogers.
The municipal water lines were flushed out, and none of the 11 samples collected afterward had detectable levels of petroleum products when they were tested by the DOH, according to Ulster County executive Pat Ryan .
The water advisory was lifted just after midnight on Thursday, and residents woke up on Friday to the good news.
“We’re Going to be Dealing with this for a Long Time”
New Paltz is now receiving its water from the three other municipal reservoirs and the Catskill Aqueduct, as remediation begins on Reservoir Number Four.
“We’re going to be dealing with this for a long time,” Rogers says.
The DEC was taking soil samples from the area to see where the oil had traveled, and the holding ponds connected to the plant had to be cleaned, he says. It was unknown how long remediation would take until tests came back.
“There’s certainly a scenario where the oil just stays within this tight little area, and they can scoop it out,” Rogers says. He noted, however, another scenario in which the oil infiltrated bedrock and entered the aquifer, which may be connected to wells.
“The jury’s still out,” Rogers saiys. “We don’t know until they dig.”
There is also the question of who will pay for all this. Remediation for fuel spills is the responsibility of the landowner. New Paltz had the option of remediating the site themselves, then litigating with the third-party contractor for reimbursement. It instead chose to hand remediation over to the state, which bankrolls the clean-up through a DEC spill fund which must be reimbursed.
The village couldn’t have afforded the clean-up and would have had to issue bonds, according to Rogers. State Attorney General Letitia James will decide who is responsible for the leak. That party will have to reimburse the spill fund.
“Clearly, our hope is that the contractor’s insurance company pays for it,” Rogers says. He did not know if the responsible party would have to refund the state for the 50,000 gallons of water trucked in, and the DEC did not respond to questions about paying for the water.
New Paltz vs. Hoosick Falls vs. Newburgh
The situation in New Paltz can be readily compared to the water crises in two other New York communities, as well as the long-running crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“I think anyone involved in water is like, ‘We don’t want to be Flint, we don’t want to be the PFOA situation, we didn’t want to be Newburgh,’” Rogers says.
The water crisis in Hoosick Falls began when two residents started testing water samples in the summer of 2014 after observing what they thought were elevated rates of cancer in the community.
The tests showed elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), but it took another year for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which produced the chemical, to test the water below its plant, and an additional six months for the EPA to advise residents of the village to not drink tap water, according to the Associated Press.
Elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate were found near Newburgh’s water supply in March 2016. The chemical came from fire-fighting foam used at the nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base, but the DOH didn’t start offering to test resident for the chemical until October, according to the Times-Herald Record.
The major factor between response times in these crises and New Paltz’s seems to be simple: The impurity in New Paltz’s water could be smelled and tasted, whereas the impurities in the other two communities could only be detected via testing. Additionally, the SUNY campus was a second voice alongside the village’s in getting the state to respond quickly.
New York may also have learned its lesson. In 2017, the state passed the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which included $1.5 billion in grants for local governments to improve their water infrastructure.
Congressman Antonio Delgado, whose district includes Hoosick Falls, has also been pushing for the federal government to address chemicals in tap water. He sponsored a bill to get PFAS chemicals included on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory; the bill was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act last year.
Mayor Rogers said Monday the village had not seen any tainted water since the advisory was lifted four days earlier.
“I heard some grumbling on Facebook” about the water still tasting odd, Rogers says, so he released a statement saying anyone who still had concerns should contact the New Paltz Department of Public Works at (845)-255-1980, and a sample will be collected and tested.
No one has yet called.