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Pollutant is removed from water in Hoosick Falls, Cuomo says

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. – More than six weeks after declaring an environmental emergency in this upstate village, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made his first visit here Sunday, announcing that a new filter system had successfully cleared a toxic chemical known as PFOA from the municipal water supply.

“The PFOA is out of the water,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a command center set up by the Department of Environmental Conservation. “Today is good news,” he added.

Despite Cuomo’s optimistic proclamations, state officials – including the governor’s office – were still warning residents not to use tap water for drinking or cooking until a full flush of the local water system had been completed.

Such precautions have become commonplace in Hoosick Falls and surrounding areas since late last year, when federal officials warned the village that its water, which is drawn from municipal wells, contained unsafe levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, a commercial chemical used in manufacturing nonstick Teflon and other products.

Since then, the state has scrambled to keep up with a public health scare that ranks as the worst of Cuomo’s 5-year-old administration and criticism of the government response, including repeated assertions by the Department of Health and village leaders that the water was safe.

On Sunday, however, the governor defended his reaction and praised the performance of state and local officials. “Congratulations, job well done,” Cuomo said, adding that while work remained, “we’ve made great progress.”

Cuomo, who has prided himself on an aggressive response to storms and other disasters, had been chided by some conservative lawmakers for not promptly visiting Hoosick Falls, despite the danger posed by PFOA, which is also known as C-8 and has been linked in studies to cancer, serious pregnancy complications and thyroid disease.

About two dozen residents of Hoosick Falls, a village of some 3,500 people near the Vermont border, came to the command center. And not all were impressed by the state’s or the governor’s sense of urgency.

“It was 100 days or so: Where was Cuomo?” said Greg Restino, 60, a service manager for a local car dealership who lives near the plant where the pollution is believed to have occurred. “Somebody should have been here.”

State officials have linked the PFOA in Hoosick Falls to a factory, St.-Gobain Performance Plastic, where the chemical was once used in making Teflon products. Since last fall, the company has been paying for bottled water for residents and also funded the temporary water filtration system that the governor talked about on Sunday.

After his announcement, Cuomo met privately with some residents and promised continued, long-term action on the village’s water problems. Several permanent solutions are being considered, including using water from the Hoosic River – which cuts through the village – or increasing the capacity of a village well where the measured levels of PFOA are low. State officials are also considering using a reservoir about 12 miles away, though Cuomo suggested that costly option was less likely.

In his public remarks Sunday, Cuomo again seemed to fault federal officials for not setting long-term guidelines for PFOA, though the Environmental Protection Agency had issued a short-term advisory in 2009 putting the safe level for the chemical at 400 parts per trillion. Shortly after the state acted in January, declaring the St.-Gobian plant a Superfund site, the federal agency recommended an even lower level: 100 parts per trillion.

And indeed, the EPA is due to set a long-term level this spring, something Cuomo and the governors of Vermont and New Hampshire – two nearby states where water tainted with PFOA has also been found – recently reiterated the need for.

“We think the EPA should set a number, and whatever that number is we’ll follow,” Cuomo said. “But we need the number.”

Still, Cuomo cautioned that the state’s residents should anticipate the discovery of PFOA and other chemicals in the drinking water of other locations. “We’re going to continue to find situations like this all throughout the state, all throughout the country,” he said, noting that past methods of disposing of toxic chemicals were not always prudent. “Now, in many ways, we’re paying the price as a society.”

Marianne Zwicklbauer, 55, who lives in Hoosick Falls with her husband and two children, said she was appreciative of Cuomo’s visit, but wanted more action from the state.

“The state shouldn’t have been blindsided by this because the EPA has known about it for years,” she said, adding that she had also been disappointed by the federal response.

“I would like to be proud of the state of New York,” she said. “And they have the opportunity to be great on this.”

The governor seemed sympathetic to those living in Hoosick Falls. “If I had a family here, and my kids were drinking the water, I would be frightened,” he said.

“The hyperbole, the confusion, the shifting facts, would frighten me,” he said, adding, “that’s why we’ve worked very hard to say we’re doing everything we can do.”

The state hopes to have the new system delivering clean tap water by next week. In the meantime, however, local officials said they were confident that Hoosick Falls would recover.

“We’re not closing up shop and going anywhere,” the town supervisor, Mark Surdam, said. “This problem will be fixed.”