Amid backlash, NY seeks well testing

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday his office will seek a law next year that would require testing of private wells in New York, knocking the federal government for poor oversight in his ongoing battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Democratic governor's proposal came as his top health and environmental officials were grilled during a legislative hearing in Albany over the state's response to water contamination problems across the state, particularly in Hoosick Falls outside the Albany area.

The state has defended its response to the crises and has put the blame on the EPA, which in turn said the problems are the state's fault.

The EPA also on Wednesday declared Hoosick Falls as a Superfund site, giving "the EPA leverage to make the polluters pay and to set a protocol for investigation and clean-up," said Sen. Charles Schumer in a statement.

On Wednesday, the state commissioners of the health and environmental conservation departments urged the EPA in a letter to close a federal loophole that exempts public water systems that serve less than 10,000 people from being required to be tested for contaminants.

Additionally, Cuomo said he would seek a state law that would require the testing of private wells by homeowners prior to the sale of a house and mandate landlords test properties and share the results with tenants.

The state has 1.1 million private wells, serving nearly 4 million residents.

"We firmly believe that the health and safety of our residents should not depend on the size of the town in which they live," Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement.

Lawmakers ripped Zucker for the slow response to the Hoosick Falls water contamination last year, accusing the state for not more quickly addressing the problem and getting homeowners off the public water system until there was remediation.

The EPA ordered residents to stop drinking the water in December 2015, when high levels of the danger chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, were detected.

But legislators -- at a hearing last week and again Wednesday -- said the state Health Department didn't immediately take similar action, leading to confusion. Zucker said the state did act quickly.

“Would you have let your mother drink that water for 18 months?” Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, a Republican who represents Hoosick Falls, asked Zucker about the response.

Assemblyman Steve Engelbright, D-Suffolk County, said residents expect better from state regulators.

"The public has an expectation that the state’s laws are protective of our water and environment," Engelbright, who chairs the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee.

"Recent events have challenged that assumption – and instead created authentic victims and damaged communities."

State officials have increased criticism of the EPA, saying it should mandate more testing for contaminants in water and questioning why existing regulations often do not apply to water systems with less than 10,000 people.

The state asked EPA to boost its regulations and expand its funding for water testing, and Cuomo said he would also seek state laws to address the gaps in oversight.

Under his proposal, Cuomo said the state would require testing of private wells upon sale of homes or when a new home is built. The same standards would apply to landlords who own homes using private wells.

Any high levels of contamination would require notification to state and local health department, as well as requiring the homeowner to pay for the testing when the property is sold -- a cost of about $400.

Cuomo said the state would cover the cost for "low-income homeowners and seniors."

The plan would require approval of the state Legislature, which reconvenes at the Capitol in January.


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