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Water questions arise after group's test

WATKINS GLEN--Recent independent testing performed by Seneca Lake Guardian has shown levels of fluorinated organic chemicals in water from Watkins Glen, Montour Falls, Waterloo and Romulus. A press release by the group combined with a story by a local journalist have brought further questions about water purity and testing in the area.
Last week, Watkins Glen Mayor Luke Leszyk announced that local drinking water is safe to drink according to state and federal standards and that further tests will be performed to guarantee it.
"We are being proactive and looking into it just to make sure our residents feel secure about their water," Leszyk said.
Leszyk mentioned he was taken by surprise by the release and online coverage of the results performed by the Seneca Lake Guardian, a local non-profit dedicated to protecting the Finger Lakes.
"We didn't know anyone was even looking into this," Leszyk said, who added that local water quality has passed all inspections and has never been on an advisory list.
Fluorinated organic chemicals or PFAS were in the past used in multiple manufacturing processes along with being a component of firefighting foam used to extinguish petroleum-based fires. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS and other associated chemicals can cause development issues during pregnancy, affect the thyroid, liver, kidneys, hormone levels and the immune system when exposed in sufficient quantities.
"I spoke with our water superintendent and he said look, we do all our required tests (and testing for PFAS) is not a required test. We pass everything so our water is safe to drink according to New York state," Leszyk said.
In a press release issued announcing their results, Mary Anne Kowalski, research director for Seneca Lake Guardian, said, "We felt the need to inform the public about our findings, and will be working with other organizations and elected officials to continue educating our community and urging safer standards along with clean up."
If the results of the Guardian study are accurate, the public should be concerned, said Dr. John D. Halfman, professor of geolimnology and hydrochemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
"People in other areas might want to have their water tested. More importantly, the source/cause of the contaminant should be determined and then removed to eliminate the problem," Dr. Halfman said.
In 2016 the EPA issued health advisory levels for PFAS and related chemicals at 70 parts per trillion in water. New York state is currently proposing an enforceable limit of 10 parts per trillion. In its press release the Guardian calls for a standard of 2 parts per trillion. Currently there are no legally enforceable standards on the presence of PFAS or related chemicals in drinking water under state or federal regulations.
According to the Guardian, its study on PFAS contamination in local water showed that water from Watkins Glen registered contamination at 21 parts per trillion (ppt), tap water from a Waterloo plant registered at 17.6 ppt and water from Montour Falls registered at 13.7 ppt. Three private wells in Romulus near the former Seneca Army Depot had readings of 20, 5 and 4.1 parts per trillion.
Halfman, who has not tested local water sources for these specific chemicals because he lacks the instrumentation, said people locally draw their water from a variety of different sources.
"It's hard to make a general statement other than the municipal sources are well regulated, tested periodically and less likely to be bad than the other sources," Dr. Halfman said.
Leszyk said he and officials from Montour Falls have no idea where the samples for the Guardian study were taken from. Leszyk further called into question the validity of the Guardian's testing parameters, saying he and village officials don't know if the results could stand up to scrutiny.
"We don't know where the samples came from or how they took them. So it was more of a scare tactic... So we have reached out to where we get our normal water tests done to figure out how to do this right and what tests certain conditions have to be met. Things like chain of custody and procedure and how to get it into the lab and get it tested correctly. As soon as we figure it out, we will do it," Leszyk said.
The timetable as to when the results will be back is still unknown, he added.
In the meantime, the Guardian is encouraging residents who are interested to test their own water with their own money.
"Boiling water will not destroy these chemicals and will increase their levels somewhat due to water evaporation," the Guardian press release states.
State Senator Tom O'Mara (R,C,I-Big Flats) and State Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (R,C,I-Corning) did not respond for comment by press time.

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