After his factory worker father died a painful death from kidney cancer at age 68 in 2013, Michael Hickey made it his mission to find out why so many people in his New York hometown along the Hoosic River were getting sick.
Two years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned residents of Hoosick Falls not to drink or cook with water from municipal wells, and a plastics plant has agreed to install a $2 million carbon filtration system at the village water treatment plant.
This most recent link discovered between cancer and polluted water should be of major concern to Wisconsin. Last October, Midwest Environmental Advocates requested an EPA investigation of the Wisconsin DNR for failing to comply with the Clean Water Act in the state. Clean water advocates want the federal agency to strip Wisconsin of its authority to control water pollution if it doesn’t do a better job.
The excessive water pollution allowed by Walker and the state’s Republican leadership has raised eyebrows all over the nation for its transparently aggressive attempt to reward major donors affiliated with Koch Industries and Big Ag, which have contributed many millions of dollars to their campaigns.
Esquire magazine reported last November that the “deregulation regime put in place by (Gov. Scott) Walker and his pet legislature, which necessarily involved defanging the state's environmental oversight authorities, is rendering much of Wisconsin's water into a chemistry set. Between the nitrates leaching into rural wells from the over-farming of big agriculture, to towns that use a loophole in the regulations to … wait for it … avoid having to pay to purify their water supplies, the kitchen tap has become a prime venue for Russian roulette.”
In Hooosick Falls, Hickey launched a one-man campaign to bring local water pollution to federal attention. He took it upon himself to examine the industrial pollution released into the groundwater in the factory village near the Vermont border, where his father had worked for 35 years at a plant that made high-performance plastics similar to Teflon. So Hickey searched online for “cancer” and “Teflon.”
What he found: PFOA.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, a water and oil repellent, had been used since the 1940s in products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting and microwave popcorn bags. Manufacturers agreed to phase it out by the end of 2015 shortly after DuPont reached a $16.5 million settlement with the EPA over the company’s failure to report possible health risks associated with PFOA.
A scientific panel that conducted health studies as part of a DuPont settlement of a West Virginia class-action lawsuit concluded there was a “probable link” between PFOA exposure and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
In Hoosick Falls, nobody has ever scientifically documented that the village has an unusually high cancer rate, but Hickey and a local doctor had heard enough anecdotal evidence that they felt it should be addressed.
“There’s always been talk around town about how there’s a lot of cancer,” Hickey said. “When my dad, who didn’t drink or smoke, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, that made it more personal.”
Dr. Marcus Martinez, the family doctor for many of the village’s 3,500 residents, added there certainly seemed to be a high rate of cancer there, particularly rare, aggressive forms. The 44-year-old Martinez himself is in remission from atypical bronchial carcinoid tumor, a rare form of lung cancer.
When the two men suggested testing the village water supply, part-time Mayor David Borge at first refused, citing state guidelines. New York state classifies PFOA as an “unspecified organic contaminant” and doesn’t require testing for it.
The EPA has a non-enforceable guidance level of 400 parts per trillion — roughly 4 teaspoons in enough water to fill a 10-mile string of rail tankers.
Hickey used his own money in summer 2014 to have water from his kitchen tap and other sources tested. The results showed PFOA at 540 ppt from Hickey’s home, exceeding the EPA’s guidance. Village officials subsequently tested the municipal supply and found PFOA at similar levels.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, part of a Paris-based global conglomerate, in 1999 became the fifth owner of a plastics factory in Hoosick Falls. It conducted tests in the summer of 2015 and reported a PFOA level of 18,000 ppt in groundwater under its plant, 500 yards from the village’s main water wells.
“Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is committed to helping the village of Hoosick Falls with this situation,” company spokesman Carmen Ferrigno said. While the source of the PFOA contamination hasn’t been identified, Saint-Gobain has been paying for bottled water for residents since November and has agreed to pay for filtration to remove the chemical from the public water supply, he said.
Hickey and Martinez, along with Albany environmental lawyer David Engel, weren’t satisfied. They wanted people to be told not to drink the tap water, along with a full investigation and remediation.
Engel contacted Judith Enck, who heads the EPA region that includes New York. She issued a statement in December warning residents not to drink or cook with village water. Until then, state and village officials had told residents the water was unlikely to cause health problems.
On Jan. 14, Enck and a panel of leading EPA scientists addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Hoosick Falls’ high school auditorium. The same day, New York officials asked the EPA to add the Saint-Gobain plant and other possible sources of contamination in Hoosick Falls to the Superfund priorities list. The state health department also recently announced plans to study cancer rates in the village and vicinity.
“We are giving this contamination problem a high priority,” Enck said. “A very detailed study of groundwater is needed in Hoosick Falls to know what we are dealing with and how to best address it.”
Engel said that the village’s plan to install filters at the water plant is a good first step, but that the long-term solution should be to establish new wells to replace the contaminated ones.
Kevin Allard, 58, who worked at the plastics plant in the 1980s, said his mother died of pancreatic cancer at 54 and his father died of thyroid cancer at 81. In 2006, a 25-year-old friend of Allard’s son died of pancreatic cancer. Now, he worries about the health of his children, in their early 30s.
“They grew up on that water,” he said. “That’s what concerns me.”