Transcript: Governor Cuomo Launches Statewide Water Quality Initiatives

Date: Feb. 18, 2016
Location: Albany, NY

Earlier today, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, joined by state and local officials at Stony Brook University, announced a series of aggressive water quality initiatives to protect both the public health and the environment. The Governor is creating a Statewide Water Quality Rapid Response Team charged with identifying and developing plans to swiftly address critical drinking water contamination concerns, as well as related groundwater and surface water contamination problems. The Governor is also proposing statewide regulations in the coming days to regulate mulch processing facilities to strengthen oversight and safeguard natural resources.

In addition to these statewide actions, the Governor announced today that the state has begun testing samples from the Northrop Grumman plume on Long Island. The state will also partner with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a comprehensive ground water survey to ensure Long Island's drinking water is protected and properly managed.

A rush transcript of the Governor's remarks is below:

Well thank you all very much for coming to join us. It's a pleasure to be back at Stony Brook, once again, at this magnificent campus. It is always a pleasure. Let me introduce the people with me on the panel today, starting at my left, not that any of them need an introduction. Our County Executive from Nassau County, Ed Mangano. Let's give him a round of applause. Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone. It's a pleasure to be with Steven Bellone. This is a pleasure. When I'm with both County Executives, it's usually an extreme weather occasion. Either it's a snow storm, or a rain storm, or we're standing on the Long Island Expressway in the middle of stranded cars, so it's very nice to be with them in sub-freezing weather. And they look different when they're not all bundled up. I won't say better or worse, I'll just say different.

Senator Flanagan, who is the leader of the State Senate, I want you to know he is a great partner in many, many aspects of government and in many of the things we've done. But in the program we're going to outline today, his direct intervention and his team did a really great job in making it a reality -- Senator Flanagan. Assemblyman Steve Englebright who has a great environmental record, always fighting for the environment and in many ways, spotted issues before their time. A pleasure to be with you, Assemblyman Englebright. And Basil Seggos, who is our DEC Commissioner. It's a pleasure to have him with us today.

Now we also have a host of our colleagues who are here. I will save the Senator and the Assemblyman the trouble, and if I could, just mention them. This is really a bi-partisan effort. It's a Long Island-wide effort and as you'll see, this presentation talks about many of the issues that we've been working on for a long time. So I'll call out t their names, I'll ask them to stand and we'll do it in rapid order: Senator Ken LaValle, who is here at home, with his Stony Brook hat, Senator Carl Marcellino, Assemblyman Joseph Saladino, Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, Assemblyman Michael Montesano, Assemblyman Andrew Raia and we have Kyle Strober from the Long Island office of Senator Charles Schumer.

From my team we also have Dr. Howard Zucker, who is the Commissioner of the Department of Health and Sabrina Ty who is the President and CEO of the Environmental Facilities Corporation of the State of New York. Please stand, Sabrina.

We are going to talk about the environment today and specifically the environment on Long Island. There is a great Native American proverb, or a proverb that is attributed to the Native Americans that I think says it all: "We don't inherit the land from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children." We are public stewards and we are stewards of this earth and we will pass it on and hopefully we pass it on in better shape than it was given to us, right? That's our responsibility as parents and as citizens and that's what today is all about.

We've been very aggressive when it comes to protecting the environment. One of my daughters is doing an article for her school newspaper and she wanted to interview me to practice her interviewing skills. She found me incredibly boring, by the way. I think she interviewed the postman afterwards, but she said to me in the interview, "Well what do you think are the most challenging areas of your job?" So I said first of all, dealing with Senator Flanagan, which is a full time, you know. After that, I said probably dealing with terrorism and the environment because you don't really know the facts yet, and the facts change. On terrorism, almost nothing would surprise me on any given morning. And in the environment, it is evolving and the challenges are evolving and we don't really know what we're dealing with. Nobody knows what this climate change extreme weather can bring. Nobody really understands what it means to put all of those variables together. So it an issue that spent a lot of time on. It's a priority for the state, it's one we study and it's one we, in this budget, are investing in a significant amount of resources.

The main environmental fund for the state of New York is called Environmental Protection Fund and in our budget we bring it to $300 million which is the highest level in history for the funding of EPF. We're also proposing $100 million in the Water Infrastructure Act, which is money for local governments to replace, renew their infrastructure, their water infrastructure, especially. We will be out of the coal business by 2020, believe it or not. There will be no coal plant in the state of New York. We have a mandate -- 50-percent of New York's energy must be from renewables by 2030 and we are developing many of those renewable markets here in New York. So we are combining economic development and environmental policy.

Upstate New York, which has been struggling for many years as you know, we've made significant gains in economic development by bringing in energy companies. Some of the largest solar panel manufacturers in the world are now in upstate New York. We're training people on solar panel manufacturing and installation so we are combining economic opportunities and renewables with actually using the renewable technology here in New York.

Long Island is especially sensitive when it comes to the environment. Basically for geographic reasons, the sound on one side, the ocean on the other. The geography of the island itself and the way the aquifers run, it makes the island the most environmentally sensitive part of the state of New York, just from a systems analysis. We have beautiful parts of the state, all across New York that we seek to protect but environmental challenges just by geographic design, Long Island is probably the most sensitive. County Executive Bellone has made water quality and water treatment a top priority and that is why he is smiling in that picture because he did a good job and he knew it and he was wearing his good tie so he was happy in that picture. He is also smiling because we have invested $383 million in the Suffolk Water System Program.

In Nassau County, we are investing $800 million to partner with the county in the improvement of wastewater treatment and that is why Ed Mangano is smiling. And post Superstorm Sandy, we have invested billions of dollars, literally. That is primarily from the federal government in hardening our utility systems, we learned a lot of lessons. I can speak to the county executives as well as myself, dealing with storms and LIPA and hardening utilities so that the island is better prepared to deal with extreme weather which I am sure with reoccur. The hardening of the utilities systems as well as the hardening of our shorefronts. We have made significant progress there and part of our efforts actually are, a $200 million commitment to launch the Stoney Brook Center for Clean Technology, which will do exactly that and the research on the areas that we are talking about today. We are very excited about that, it couldn't be at a better place and let's have a round of applause for Stony Brook. I want to thank Anna Thorn-Holst who is here with us today for this idea and this initiative so we thank her very much thank you Anna.

One of the main environmental issues which is emerging is the issues of the quality of the drinking water. When I talked about how the environment changing and the challenges changing, the facts change. That is probably nowhere more true than the evolution of what we know and what we think about the quality of our drinking water. The long term effects of pollution all through the state in many ways is now making itself visible in ways that we have never seen before.

Now, maybe we didn't look for it before it, testing for chemical compounds that we had never tested for before. The EPA is constantly reevaluating what the allowable concentration of chemicals in drinking water is or should be and they will make dramatic shifts in those federal guidelines which then changes the entire out look of a situation. So in some places literally the groundwater is changing, we will go through a piece of land that was polluted decades and decades ago and it will pick up a chemical which it wasn't on our radar before and as it goes forward now, the quality and the integrity of the groundwater is changed. We also have a changing and aging infrastructure. So the pipes themselves, the infrastructure itself can actually have a negative effect on the water that we drink.

On top of all of it we have extreme weather conditions which in some cases that can actually change the condition of the aquifer or the flow of the groundwater, it can slow it, it can increase it, it can increase it to such an extent where the groundwater actually travels to an area that it didn't normally travel to and starts to pick up chemicals that it didn't have before. So this is a kaleidoscope throughout the state and throughout the nation, frankly, of an ever changing situation when it comes to ground water.

We are experiencing two situations now, one in the town of Orleans in upstate New York where the ground water has a very high level of salt in it because there was salt mining nearby and the aquifers picked that up. We are dealing with a situation in the area of Hoosick Falls which had a plant that did manufacturing and left residue of a chemical called PFOA. It was not a regulated chemical so we didn't test for it for many, many years. The EPA recently decided we should test for it and they set one level which was the recommended limit and we tested for that and then they changed the limit, they actually multiplied it by four. So there has been all sorts of variance and there is now a real scare in Hoosick Falls about the quality of the water and they are drinking bottled water and we are doing a rapid fire study of filtration and what is the appropriate study looking for alternative water sources. But these are not isolated and I don't expect them to be the last I believe this is the precursor of what we are going to see going forward. You know Flint, Michigan which is somewhat of an unusual situation in the way it came to light, but there is nothing unusual about an older system and an older city having older infrastructure and older lead pipes and the quality of water being demeaned by the infrastructure system itself. So even if you have a quality water source, by the time you run it through a municipal water system that may be aging, you may contaminate the water source through that infrastructure itself.

Right here on Long Island, we have several issues that are unique to Long Island and the sustainability of our water systems. We'll go through them and address them.

First, we have the Northrop Grumman plume which Assemblyman Joseph Saladino has reminded us all of on a daily basis, least we should forget for just the shortest period of time. But he has really done a great job as an advocate for his community, let's give him a round of applause. We have an issue in Suffolk County in the mulch facilities and the regulation of mulch facilities and we have a big question of the integrity of the groundwater by saltwater intrusion and we'll talk about them one at a time because we have a specific plan for each one.

First, on Northrop Grumman. As you know Grumman manufactured military equipment for many years. It was a great employer for many years. It left a significant hole on Long Island from an economic point of view when they left, but we were a manufacturing state. Grumman was a manufacturing company and when you manufacture, it was about building things and using chemicals and using substances to help in the manufacturing and we are now suffering from literally the stain of the manufacturing era. And the companies can close up and move away, but that doesn't mean that all the residue they left and put into the ground goes away and frankly when we were regulating these manufacturing companies at the time. No one was really studying the discharge and what it would mean down the road or the half-life of the chemicals that were being released. So, we're now dealing with the Northrop Grumman plume which is about one mile by three miles and it is traveling and it is problematic. There is no doubt about that. Now, the Massapequa water district and elected representatives, I mentioned Joe Saladino, Senator Charles Schumer, who was also a great advocate for trying to determine the facts about what is in that plume. What are the chemicals in that plume which can tell you two things -- number one, where it may have come from, where it emanated from. And number two, how dangerous it is, how you could treat it.

Now, the federal government, which now controls most of the site through the Department of the Navy, was, let's say it was reluctant, that's a good word, it's also the word that's on the slide, so it must be a good word, reluctant to allow testing of the ground water. Our position is the state of New York doesn't need the permission from the federal government and that the state of New York has its own environmental jurisdiction and we can do testing on our own. So, that's what we're going to do and we're going to commence independent testing by an expert, independent lab and basically they are testing for a specific chemical, dioxane, which they can quote, unquote fingerprint to a particular type of manufacturing that may have been done by Grumman. This is state-of-the-art testing, it didn't exist just a few years ago. The Massapequa Water District wanted to make sure it was done independently, so they were getting full and fair results. They're exactly right and that's what we're going to do today, literally. We'll take the samples, we'll sent it to the lab, the Massapequa Water District will be involved and we will find out exactly what is in that plume and information is power. Once we know what it is, we'll know what we're dealing with and then we can have an intelligent plan for the remediation. I'd like to say in situations like this, you want information before emotion. People tend to get nervous, they tend to get anxious, their mind starts to run away from them on possible variables--"What if, what if, what if, what if." Let's get the information and then we can make a decision. We'll have six monitoring wells. We'll test all six. We'll continue the testing as we go, if we have to expand the testing depending upon what we find, we will do that. As soon as we have the results, we'll send the exact results with the water district and the public, just so everyone knows exactly what we have.

Second, the mulch industry is a big industry on Long Island and mulching has its benefits, there is no doubt. There's also no doubt that it has created unintended consequences. Suffolk County recently did testing on the mulch facilities and found that some of the groundwater may have been tainted with higher levels of manganese, iron and thallium. That would be a problem. The mulching industry also creates other issues. Apparently, there's an odor from the mulching facilities, there's a dust, and the regulations have been, frankly, it's been an unregulated industry, by and large, up until now. Assemblyman Englebright brought this to our attention last year and we are now going to announce regulations that will regulate the mulching industry, which will protect nearby residents. We will also be testing the groundwater under the current mulching sites to make sure it is not tainting the groundwater. If we do find a situation where the groundwater was tainted, we will address it at that time and we'll put in what are called monitoring wells, so you can come back periodically to check and make sure there's been no change.

Third, there has been a question, an ongoing question, of saltwater intrusion into the groundwater, which would obviously have negative consequences for the groundwater. There has also been a series of questions about possible chemical contamination, not just the Grumman Plume but other specific sites around the island and are they causing environmental damage? Rather than do this piecemeal and address individual situations, what we propose is to do an island-wide, top shelf study of the groundwater, of the aquafer, let's find out what's going on, let's find out if there is saltwater intrusion, where its coming from, if there is chemical contamination, where is it coming from? We'll do it in concert with the US Geological Society, County of Nassau, County of Suffolk, Stony Brook, everyone on the same page. The best, most extensive study ever done to make sure we know what is going on with the groundwater.

The state will fund the cost -- it's estimated to be $6 million but it is well worth it. The aquafer on Long Island is a priceless asset and we want to protect it, and part of protecting it is understanding what's going on with it and understanding what's going on it with it right now. So that will be taking place and we will start that forthwith, we'll get the partners together we'll talk about a format for the study and we will go forward. Again, these drinking water quality issues are not just on Long Island, they tend to be more sensitive on Long Island but they are statewide and they are nationwide.

I remember as a relative youngster, I went to Israel and I met with Shimon Peres, who is one of the great minds, I believe, on the globe. I was 30 something -- a long, long time ago -- and I said to him "so what is going to be the problem of the future?" He said to me "the problem of the future will be water." I said, water? He said "yes, fresh water." I thought there was a metaphor that I was missing.

I was at the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- I was the secretary of HUD, and we had questions about lead in the water, because we had a lot of old housing, and a lot of old cities, a lot of lead pipes, and I went to NIH and talked to the head scientist at NIH and he said to me, this is going to be the issue of the future. Clean water, water without chemicals, and it is going to be very hard to find because so much of the ground has been used and tainted and so much of the infrastructure is going to be old, and the infrastructure that we put in, we didn't anticipate the degradation of that infrastructure and what it might do. So this is an issue that we want to get ahead of, rather than always responding to individual circumstances. We want to know what we are dealing with and be proactive. We are putting a statewide Water Quality Response Team together, we believe it is going to be the first in the country, and we want to have the best state program in the nation to preserve water quality and spot problems before they come. That team is going to coordinate rapid responses to emergencies like at Hoosick Falls etc., we'll have the best regulations to protect clean water, we'll understand what contaminants are being released and regulating them before they pose a problem and we'll be coming up with a comprehensive masterplan.

The Task Force will be co-chaired by the Department of Health, Commissioner Zucker who is here and the DEC Acting Commissioner Basil Seggos who is here, because they require -- Hoosick Falls for example -- Department of Health is testing everybody's blood, testing the water system to see if there's PFOA, then testing people's blood to see if there is PFOA in their system. The DEC is working on the filtration side and water supply side, so they really work hand in glove and we'll also have the secretary of state and a host of relevant individuals including Sabrina Ty who is here today from the Environmental Facilities Corporation.

So, in summary, one, the Grumman Plume, I feel very good about that. When the federal government said you can't test -- it made everybody suspicious, understandably -- people felt that the federal government was hiding something that continued to raise anxiety, so the state will assert jurisdiction and we will go forward. If the federal government doesn't believe we have jurisdiction I'm sure they'll let us know about it, if they get hostile I'm going to blame Senator Flanagan -- if somebody has to go to federal prison, John, it's not going to be me. Conduct additional testing and propose the first ever for the mulch facilities, comprehensive groundwater study and establish a statewide Water Quality Response Team.

I want to thank my colleagues in the legislature for working this through, many of them have worked on it for many years. I especially want to thank Senator Flanagan for his help and his team's help. These issues were very much Long Island issues and specific to long island and many of them involved his district, so his team was really top shelf in putting this together. With that, I will turn it over to my friend and colleague, Senator John Flanagan.

Governor's closing remarks:

Let me say this - this was a lot of work by many, many people who worked very hard to put this plan together. Again, it was done with all of my colleagues here and I want to make sure that everybody understands that it was a group effort but I think everyone said it very well. And Senator Flanagan is right. I can be a pain in the neck in insisting that government be aggressive and try to get ahead of the issues. I like to say denial is not a life strategy. We know this is an issue coming down the pipe. And yes, we could sit back and wait for it to develop, but that would not be responsible and it would not be the best way to handle it.

So let's get ahead of it and let's lead. They elect us to lead, we're going to lead. We're the state of New York. The other states expect us to lead. This is going to be a national problem for years. The state that gets ahead of this, number one, will preserve its economic asset, because your economic asset, the island's economic asset is the beautiful environment of the island. It's the beaches, it's the water. That's what you have. That your essential asset, and number two, you could potentially save lives this way. I believe the more we learn and the more studies they do, what County Executive Mangano was talking about is going to turn out to be true. I don't believe it's going to be coincidental -- that you had high levels of contaminants and then illnesses and cancers. I believe there is going to wind up being a connection between the chemicals we put in our food and the pesticides we put in our food. We're putting more and more chemicals into our body in combinations that nobody ever anticipated. We have chemicals in our water that nobody ever tested for and this is going to be one of the real challenges that unfold. Information is power and if we do this right, we could literally save lives. I believe that. And we are getting ahead of it, and we are being aggressive about it, but that is exactly the right MO on a situation like this.

This is every time your child drinks a glass of water right? That's what this is about -- making sure we're giving our families, what sustains Long Island is healthy and is pure and we know the facts and that we're taking any remedial action that has to be taken. So I thank my colleagues very much. I thank the professionals, the commissioners, etcetera, who worked on the presentation. A lot to do but we are on the right track. We are going to get there and we are going to get there by working together. Thank you very much for taking the time to come out.