Being able to turn on the faucet and get clean water for drinking and cooking is a convenience most take for granted. But for a number of Saugerties residents, that hasn’t been the case since 2019.
For the past two years, the state departments of Health and Environmental Conservation have continuously brought free bottled water in five-gallon jugs to approximately 60 Saugerties residents downstream from the town transfer station after water tests, only implemented in the past few years, found their wells were contaminated with the carcinogenic chemicals dioxane and PFOS. These chemicals are the legacy of the former town landfill and current transfer station. While solar panels now cover the landfill, shuttered since 1996, chemicals continue to leach down into the aquifer and the wells of residents on John Joy Road in the southwestern corner of town, near the Woodstock border.
They include Tracy Bouvette who moved to Saugerties in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and his next-door neighbor Jenny Bowskill, a city transplant who put all of her savings into moving to this quiet, picturesque neighborhood in 2016 after coming to the area on weekends for 20 years.
Bouvette bought a piece of land, built a house and put in his well. Within a few weeks, state officials had tested his water and determined it was contaminated.
Bouvette said it’s ironic he ended up living right in the center of this issue as he spent decades working with governments and private companies on cleanups of landfills and other contaminated sites.
He said the bottled water represents what is known as an “interim remedial measure.”
“It’s kind of the band-aid,” Bouvette said.
While he now drinks the free bottled water, he still bathes and washes his clothes in the water and he admitted these “non-managed exposures” still concern him.
Familiar with such temporary solutions, he said the immediate goal of officials is to reduce impact.
Bouvette said his hope of a more permanent solution being put forth soon were dashed when the completion of an anticipated state study on the contamination was pushed back from the end of May to this fall.
But he admitted there’s no easy solution to the problem, because these chemicals, shown to cause cancer and reproductive harm, are unwieldy and there’s no way of knowing exactly where they are in the former landfill and how exactly they’re escaping.
When asked if the town could simply remove the contaminated materials from the landfill he admitted that probably wouldn’t be the most effective solution and it would be unprecedented.
Water filtration systems for each home are a possible option, though they are expensive. This type of chemical is much more difficult to filter out than minerals (as with a water softener) or E. coli (using UV light).
Bouvette feels the best long-term remedy is to extend municipal water to the area.
Bowskill, echoing Bouvette’s frustration, said she’s been told her dream home and nest egg is in the main plume of contamination and it’s now unsellable, even as area home prices have skyrocketed.
She feels she has no voice to change things. Struggling to find words, she said she feels both frustrated with the slow pace of the study, work schedules that keep getting pushed back and how intermittent communication has been from officials including the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
She admitted she’s no expert in geology and water tables and she feels officials have used that to their advantage.
“It’s let them be complacent,” Bowskill said.
In response to an inquiry from Hudson Valley One about the project, DEC officials provided only the following statement:
“DEC and DOH are committed to ensuring the protection of public health and the environment and are actively working in the Saugerties community to investigate contamination and prevent potential exposure by testing private drinking water supplies. When needed, DEC and DOH work together with impacted parties to identify alternative water options that meet the state’s stringent drinking water standards.”
She said she’s heard the chemicals can be volatile with steam and she’s not fully confident either bathing or cooking with lots of water.
And there’s the simple routine of lifting the five-gallon jugs— no easy task at over 42 pounds. “I’m pretty strong, if you’re an elderly couple, I don’t even know how you’d get it onto the cooler,” she said.
Bowskill said she tried to sell her house after and she and her partner separated only to be told she couldn’t get an appraisal because the home had no potable water.
“I’m completely trapped,” Bowskill said.
She’s pushing officials to install municipal water, but she lamented that even if that happens, construction could take years.
“The fact there is no remittance plan don’t know how it’s going to be resolved it’s very stressful,” Bowskill said.
Studying the problem
Town Supervisor Fred Costello said officials are still trying to determine the best solution.
He said DEC officials are working with state health officials to do what’s called a “P-site” analysis to see where the chemicals are and what other potential changes in groundwater activity are going on before they can come up with a solution. He said that process was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and by a preliminary study that showed potential changes in groundwater activity.
“There could be more or less contamination depending on how the groundwater flows,” he said. The results would influence what solution is chosen.
Costello said the town’s ultimate goal is to either restore the affected wells or bring in municipal water.
Costello said the nearest existing municipal water supply is a line five miles away owned by the city of Kingston Water Department that runs from the Zena reservoir to service residents and businesses in the city.
“That’s a good option, but that’s a lot of pipe,” he said.
Costello said town officials learned of the contamination in April 2019 after the state embarked on a program to test all closed landfills for contamination. He said they found them in about half of the landfills across the state including Saugerties. Before that these chemicals were not even part of water testing, he said.
The chemicals are related to former metal manufacturing concerns in the town that cleaned parts in solvents that contained these solvents as part of the machining process and then sent the shavings to the town landfill, Costello said.
He said as the town moves towards a solution, it could benefit from a multi-billion dollar state program that seeks to identify and correct the problems at landfills. And he believes implementing a resolution won’t create a financial burden for the town.
Dumping in the area
He said the study is also trying to determine if groundwater flows were changed by the dumping of construction and debris from outside the area by contractor Joe Karolys onto nearby properties at 1446 Route 212, 90 Goat Hill Road and 33 and 43 Fel Qui Road during 2019 and 2020.
With no potable water and years of illegal dumping in the neighborhood, residents of the area feel environmentally besieged. Some believe the dumping hasn’t stopped despite a court order obtained last year. Bouvette and Bowskill said numerous trucks, including logging trucks still run up and down Fel Qui Road to the Karolys property.
Costello said the dumping activity stopped with the court order and that the town is jumping through a number of legal hoops as it awaits a court date after the case was moved to Marlboro Town Court in December, following recusals by judges in Saugerties and Woodstock town courts. The supervisor said the State Attorney General’s office is also pursuing Karolys for his dumping activity, but that was also stalled by COVID-19.
He said the Ulster County Court ruled he can continue “lawful business activity” as long as he no longer accepts construction and demolition debris.
“I feel confident in the charges we presented,” Costello said. “Now we need the opportunity for them to be heard in court.”