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Hoosick Falls residents demand action from lawmakers on water crisis

Hoosick Falls residents came to the Capitol on Wednesday to demand hearings on the water crisis that has revealed high levels of a toxic chemical in many people’s blood streams.

They did not get hearings but did get a private meeting with a top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Hoosick Falls parents, children and teachers say they are frightened over the high levels of the toxic chemical PFOA found in their blood in recent tests conducted by the state health department. They worry that they and their children will become ill, and many say they already have a string of unexplained diseases and conditions that are linked to exposure to the toxin.

Among them was Loreen Hackett, whose PFOA blood level was found to be 266 micrograms per liter. She carried pictures of her grandchildren Correy Aldrich, 6, whose PFOA blood level is 142, and Alyssa Aldrich, 4, whose blood level is 117. The average American’s PFOA blood level is 2.

“I have bone issues, I have immune suppression problems, big time,” said Hackett, who said Correy has just been diagnosed as autistic. Alyssa also has immune suppression problems, she said, and her son has diabetes.

“And these conditions have all been linked,” she said.

The residents complained that the state health department has not given them enough answers, and they are also concerned over a news report that said officials in the health department knew about the heightened PFOA levels in the water 18 months before they warned residents of potential dangers.

After the residents, led by their Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, assembled outside the doors to Cuomo’s suite of offices, they were permitted a meeting with Cuomo’s director of state operations, Jim Malatras.

Malatras said he was sorry that Cuomo was busy with end-of-session issues and could not personally meet with the two dozen or so residents, but said he was willing to listen to their concerns and that the governor would meet with them at some point in the future.

“This is stuff that we’re all learning about,” Malatras said. “The unfortunate thing for you is that you’re living it.”

Malatras expressed sympathy for their plight, but it didn’t take long for residents to voice their pent-up frustrations.

“I feel what you’re going through,” Malatras said.

“No, you don’t,” several residents said.

Mothers spoke of their guilt over feeding their children tainted water; others cited lack of information.

“We’re being lied to,”  said village resident Josh Aldrich.

Malatras explained, for the first time, that the health department is also “grappling” to fully understand the situation and the implications of PFOA in people’s bloodstreams, because he said more needs to be known about the toxin, which until recently was considered an unregulated chemical. He urged more residents to get their blood tested so that better long-term studies can be undertaken.

A number to times, Malatras tried to turn the focus away from the administration’s handling of the situation to the polluters, including Saint Gobain, one of the parties the state has deemed responsible for the contamination. The company used PFOA for several years before stopping around a decade ago. He said the state is seeking reimbursement from companies who used the chemical for the money New York is already spending on cleanup efforts.

Malatras did not address accusations that Cuomo administration officials knew about the potential dangers of PFOA 18 months before they warned residents, but did say that once Cuomo became involved in early 2016, the governor told Malatras to “do everything humanly possible” for Hoosick Falls residents. He also said the governor personally made sure that water filters installed in many homes were up to spec. They also declared part of the village a Superfund site.

Malatras also promised more direct contact between the governor’s office and the residents.

“We will be the point of contact, if you have questions,” said Malatras. “What’s important to the governor is that you have the cleanest, safest drinking water possible.”

He also said that if the residents want more outside involvement from health experts, such as doctors from Mount Sinai, they will get it.

At the end of the over hour long meeting, Hoosick Falls music teacher Rob Allen summed up many residents’ feelings, saying that while they are pleased with the new assurances, “the next few weeks will be critical,” in whether the governor and his aides can regain the trust of the citizens in the village.

The issue of whether hearings will be held on how the water crisis is handled remains unresolved. Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate have the power to make that decision, but say while they have not ruled out the possibility of hearings, none are currently scheduled.

After the meeting, a spokesman for the governor says several new steps will be taken.

There will be blood testing on site in Petersburgh, a neighboring town that also has PFOA in it’s water. The state will help with costs of a study to find a new water supply for Hoosick Falls High School, which so far has not found detectable levels of the toxin in its water. They say a health outcome reviewed now being looked at by experts at Mt Sinai will be released shortly, and that they will bring staff from Mt. Sinai to Hoosick Falls armory for an informational session soon.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.