New Paltz testing reservoirs for possible spill

Earlier this afternoon, spill team officials were using testing strips to detect possible sources of contamination at Reservoir #4, located close to Mountain Rest Road in the Town of New Paltz. (Photo by Erin Quinn)

All of New Paltz is wondering: What’s in the water?

While residents and businesses make due with bottled water, state officials are seeking the answer. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has stepped in to test the Village of New Paltz’s reservoirs and implement remedial measures in case there has been a spill or contaminants in the drinking water supply for approximately 14,000 residents. The DEC spills crew was busy wrapping absorbent rolls around the perimeter of Reservoir #4 off Mountain Rest Road this afternoon.

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Earlier today, according to the governor’s office, the village’s water treatment plant operator discovered a sheen on one of the village’s reservoirs and promptly reported it to the Department of Environmental Conservation. DEC immediately responded to the scene and is currently investigating. As a precaution, absorbent booms and pads have been placed in the reservoir and DEC Spill Responders will continue to remain on site to ensure public health and the environment are protected. More information will be provided once available.

According to village mayor Tim Rogers, the DEC “is testing for volatile organic compounds.” Village residents and businesses receive their water from four village-owned reservoirs off Mountain Rest Road and from the New York City-owned aqueduct that runs from the Ashokan Reservoir and is maintained by the Department of Environmental Protection. Rogers said that the village is working closely with the DEP and the DEC as well as the New York State Department of Health and their water treatment plant operators to test several water sites throughout the village and find out what could be causing complaints of foul-smelling and -tasting water, described by many as having a “chemical” or “gasoline-like” odor and aftertaste.

What started out as some complaints by residents on Saturday night has blossomed into a full-scale emergency response, with self-serve water trucks and bottled water available at village hall and area apartment complexes, among other places. (See our ongoing article listing details of the response here.)

Local K-12 public schools will reopen tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 12. SUNY New Paltz took the extraordinary step of canceling classes for the rest of the week and asking all resident students who can leave campus to do so.

Testing at Reservoir #4 earlier today. (Photo by Erin Quinn)

Spreading the word

Despite the effort to get the news out, several residents said that they were not aware of the situation until well after the advisory was put in effect. “I did smell something odd in the water yesterday morning when I first turned on the tap – it seemed electrical – but then it dissipated and I didn’t think any more of it. I didn’t notice any discoloration or anything else,” said Grove Street resident Carole Ford. It wasn’t until her neighbor who works at the college, Martha Watkins, notified her that she found out about the village advisory.

Watkins said that she and her husband were away for the weekend. “When we came home and turned on the water on Sunday afternoon, it has a very strange smell – almost like oil or something chemical. I went down to our basement to make sure our hot water heater hadn’t malfunctioned. It ran clear, though, and I didn’t notice any discoloration.” Watkins said that she didn’t call the village to register her concerns because she just “thought it was a result of having been away.” She only found out about the village government’s notifications after “receiving a text alert from SUNY New Paltz, because I work there. We aren’t on Facebook, so I’m not sure how residents were notified. We do appreciate how quickly the village has responded; the updates on their website are helpful.”

Although the Watkinses haven’t made use of the water stations to the public, she said, “We appreciate that it’s being made available.”

One longtime village resident who wished to remain anonymous did say, “We learned about the issue and the provisions from SUNY New Paltz e-mails and text alerts. The village did not contact us. We wondered with concern how residents not affiliated with SUNY learned of the problem.”

David Santner, longtime owner of the Bakery, a local café and New Paltz institution on North Front Street, said that he did “not smell or taste anything strange or odd in our water,” but said that to err on the side of caution, they have brought water in for their coffee and cooking and baking. “I haven’t heard anyone complain about bad-tasting water or any chemical smells; in fact, most people that come in don’t even know about it. We’re the ones that are telling them.”

Several college students said that they did not smell or taste anything odd in the water, but did heed the warnings and “went to Topps to buy a case of water, just to be safe,” said Lindsay Kranitz, a SUNY New Paltz junior who lives off-campus.

 

Cause still elusive

At this point, there are several independent reports of water that smells like “chemicals” or tastes “funny,” but there are also a wide range of residents who report no concerning smells or tastes from their tapwater, which has also baffled officials.

“It’s unlikely that a contaminant penetrated the water system,” said Mayor Rogers. “It’s a highly pressurized system,” the mayor explained, noting that the three-million-gallon tanks on Cherry Hill as well as the water being held by the reservoirs off Mountain Rest Road help to maintain an even water pressure. “If a contaminant entered our water system, it’s much more likely that it entered at the source, before it hits our system. So that’s where our focus is right now, but we are testing throughout the village.”

The village manages the entire water treatment plant, reservoirs and municipal water infrastructure with the help of Environmental Consultations. Rogers said that he is grateful “that we’re being helped by so many agencies that know a lot about managing a situation like this. It’s nice to know that when your small community is in trouble in New York State, there are people who are ready to help immediately. We’ve had the DEP, the DEC, the county, the Governor’s Office, the State Police assist us. It’s been all hands on deck.”

As for when they might know the results of the testing, Rogers said, “That’s the challenging part, because it’s not like taking a temperature and you know the results immediately. There are some chemicals that can be tested for quickly and other contaminants that take a different amount of time.” He’s hopeful that they’ll have some answers quickly and will keep the public informed as best they can.

For the most up to date advisories, visit villageofnewpaltz.org.

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