About this time last week, the village of New Paltz issued its “do not drink” advisory for municipal water. Just over four days later it was lifted after remediation efforts yielded “no detectable signs of petroleum compound” in the drinking water. Here’s an updated look at what happened and what to expect going forward.
A faulty underground line leaked ‘several hundred gallons’ of heating oil
As we’ve reported, the cause of the contamination of municipal water, which first manifested as an usual chemical odor noticed by some residents, was a leaking underground heating oil line at water treatment plant on Mountain Rest Road, which had been damaged by a third-party contractor replacing the filtration system last September. The adjacent reservoir, Reservoir #4, was slowly contaminated as the oil seeped in through the ground. That reservoir has been bypassed and remediation continues at the site.
Mayor Tim Rogers clarified that the specific source of the leak was the return line running from the furnace back to the tank.
“I’ve learned a lot about heating furnaces, and apparently there is one line that draws 70 percent of the oil from the tank and converts it into heat, and then there’s another line that sends 30 percent of the oil back,” said Rogers. “That was the line that was damaged. Had the main line been damaged, we would have discovered this a long time ago, because when they turned on the furnace, it wouldn’t have worked!”
Asked how many gallons leaked into the ground and eventually the reservoir, the mayor said, “We’re estimating several hundred gallons, but we will not know precisely until the DEC does their remediation work.”
While hundreds of gallons of fuel oil is no small measure, Bruce Keeping, the former manager of the water treatment plant, said residents should keep the overall size of the system in mind.
“When you have 800,000 gallons of water being pumped out of there a day, a few hundred gallons over the course of four months can easily get flushed through the system.”
According to the mayor, a minority of samples taken prior to remediation had trace amounts of contaminants related to heating oil, though none were above the Department of Health’s maximum contaminant level for drinking water. He said the village would release all sampling data and lab reports for public consumption after the reports were finished.
And about the smell?
“What we’ve been told by the DOH [Department of Health] is that human noses are very good at detecting chemicals that they shouldn’t ingest,” said Rogers. “But because you can smell it, doesn’t mean it’s at a level that is dangerous.”
Read more on the process of finding the cause of the problem and the steps taken to fix it in our previous article.
New Paltz becomes a ghost town
With a heavy fog settling over the village during the water ban, college students lined up around the block by the bus station off Prospect Street trying to get a ride out of town, freestanding water trucks and water buffalos and pallets of drinking water illuminated under portable floodlights throughout the village, New Paltz had an eerie glow to it; some might call it a “sheen.” With the fear of contaminated drinking water creating a bit of hysteria, people avoided downtown restaurants, bars and even some businesses.
“They were definitely impacted,” said Rogers. “They took a huge hit, and it was a one-two punch: First the water ban, and then the college students all left. It wasn’t good.” There were pleas on social media for people to come support the downtown eateries, with owners letting people know that they had trucked in clean water sources and were open and ready to serve.
Theresa Fall, owner of Jar’d, a wine and beer bistro, and the Parish restaurant, felt the impact. “There was a huge decline in business this week at both of my Water Street Market businesses. There was one evening we did not have a single table at the Parish. That has never happened, other than a snowstorm. The Market itself was a ghost town; even the businesses which didn’t have water said they were negatively impacted. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it in my 13 years of involvement at the Market,” she said.
The Denizen Theatre also saw a big drop in attendance that week.
“One evening there were only three ticket reservations. We brought outside water in to cook with and serve. We posted on our social media accounts that we were safely using bottled water. But people were still fearful.”
That said, when the ban was lifted, business went back to normal. “Both the Parish and Jar’d did their normal this-time-of-year numbers yesterday. We were worried the negative publicity would impact tourists spending the weekend here, but it doesn’t seem so now.”
Although business did suffer, Fall said that she thought the local, county and state officials did “an excellent job,” and that she has “no complaints” about how everything was handled.
SUNY New Paltz resumed classes today and welcomed back all students who live on-campus back to the dorms where they were each greeted with a gallon jug of water outside their door.
What happens now?
According to Maureen Wren from the office of DEC media relations in Albany, the “DEC spill response experts are directing the remediation at the site of the failed line. Absorbent booms have been placed in the reservoir.”
How long and costly will cleanup be?
“The DEC’s investigation is ongoing and will determine the need for additional remedial actions, including the removal of impacted soil and groundwater. These actions will determine the cost of remediation.”
Despite the governor’s office carting in 40,000 gallons of drinking water and other agencies bringing in their experts to help get to the bottom of the problem, there are still costs that were incurred by local businesses, local government and the college.
“We had a ton of overtime hours from our Department of Public Works, who were all incredible and did an outstanding job, but these are just some of the costs that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Rogers who is more concerned with future water costs than he is with a week’s worth of overtime. “At this point we don’t know how long Reservoir #4 will be offline, and although we can buy an unlimited amount of water from the DEP’s Catskill Aqueduct, the cost of that water has gone up 289 percent in the past 16 years. It’s expensive!”
Rogers said that he and his fellow village officials have been working on drilling wells near the reservoirs off Mountain Rest Road in an effort get some “groundwater wells that we can use for our municipal system. Groundwater is the cleanest and cheapest.”
He also said that since the fuel line incident, he has reached out to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to try to see if they can get an electric system at the water treatment plant, rather than one powered by fossil fuels, as its proximity to the water source is obviously not ideal. “That plant was built in the early ’90s, and we’re doing our best to update it,” he said. “We have two great water sources: the water that falls in the Mohonk Preserve, which is protected land, and from the Catskill Aqueduct and Ashokan Reservoir.”
Keeping agreed: “It was one of those unfortunate incidents, but I was amazed by the immediacy of the response and expertise that was brought in,” he said. “I went up to lend a hand, and even when we took samples right from the area where the sheen was, we did not get anything! That’s how quickly it can dissipate.”
There are many eco-minded residents who were upset with the government’s encouragement of people to drink from single-use plastic bottles in a town that frowns on plastic straws and supported the countywide ban of plastic bags.
On that point, deputy mayor KT Tobin and Rogers said that in an emergency you have “to get people clean drinking water. We are encouraging them to recycle their bottles and get the deposit back, or bring their bottles to the village garage and we’ll recycle them.”
“We also encouraged people to bring their own refillable containers,” said Mayor Rogers.
The mayor said the village did as much outreach as it could via social media, the village website and the press, but that they could always do “more outreach.”
One long-time resident who works at SUNY New Paltz but did not want to be identified complained that while they get “notices brought to the door on when spring pickup is going to be, or leaf pickup, or when my water bill is late, they can’t deliver us a notice to tell us it’s not safe to drink our water?”
Fonda Rothblatt, a village resident of more than 40 years, 25 years of which she worked for the DEC, said that she felt she was “more than adequately notified” by the management team where she lives at Town and Country Condominiums. They had a water tanker brought in and daily notifications via written notices and e-mail and phone contact. “In addition, village residents were able to get water at Village Hall, which was excellent.”
Rothblatt said that she did not notice any unusual smells, except for the “chlorine in the water from the tanker!” When asked if she was concerned about any short- or long-term health consequences regarding the drinking water, she said, “I’m not unduly concerned about any ill-health impact. I trust our village has provided us with all the information and is doing the right thing. I think, all in all, the village did an excellent job of quickly addressing the issue, notifying people, making drinking water available and providing information.”
This was not the feeling of all residents.
Jessica Spadafora of Meadowbrook Apartments said that she “smelled a strong odor of petroleum mixed with gas,” and that as of February 16 she was still smelling it. Asked if the situation caused her any inconvenience, she said, “Yes, it did inconvenience my household. I was not able to bathe myself or my children; I spent a lot of money on bottled water and gallons of water.”
Despite the ban being lifted, she said she “absolutely does not feel safe drinking the water” and fears “long-term effects. Since the issue became really serious, I’ve had headaches and I’ve been sick, which resulted in me having to be out of work for a week.” She does not share the same faith in her village government at the moment, stating, “Honestly, I feel the problem has been swept under the rug as quickly as possible. The pipes had been leaking for months and it was only made a concern to fix once local residents started an uproar about it. There is no way it’s out of all the lines.”
Mayor Rogers said that as of the weekend, the village had received no complaints of people still smelling the petroleum odor. “There are grumblings on Facebook, but we’ve received no complaints as of the weekend.”
The mayor did say that if anyone is still having problems with their water, to call the Department of Public Works at (845) 255-1980 so samples can be taken.