U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is urging the Hoosick Falls Village Board to table a pending $1.04 million settlement between the village and two companies whose manufacturing facilities have been blamed for contaminating water supplies with a toxic chemical.
Gillibrand's extraordinary intervention in a local government matter comes as a growing number of current and former public officials, as well as many residents, believe the settlement could imperil the small community's ability to pursue unforeseen damages in the future.
The senator's concerns are outlined in a letter she wrote to Mayor David Borge that will be delivered to the village before a special meeting on Monday when the board is expected to consider the agreement.
"I have very serious concerns that the terms stipulated in this proposal are not in the best interests of the residents of the village of Hoosick Falls," Gillibrand wrote. "The potential future impacts on the families in Hoosick Falls and neighboring communities is still undetermined."
The reworked agreement would cover the village's costs incurred since 2014, when a man-made manufacturing chemical, PFOA, was found in the public water supply. Long-term exposure to PFOA has been linked to some forms of cancer and other serious diseases. Blood testing done by the state Health Department found that many village residents, including children, have elevated levels of the chemical in their bodies.
The settlement agreement is with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which runs a McCaffrey Street plant near the village's well field, and Honeywell International, which acquired a firm that ran the plant.
Borge has said the agreement will cover the costs of the small community's expenses for engineering, water sampling, and legal and public relations advice since the contamination was discovered in 2014. But a clause in the document that would prohibit the village from filing future claims related to the pollution of the existing water supply has been widely criticized.
The agreement was reworked over the past two months after it was first made public — and nearly voted on by the board — in December. The revisions include language stating the village will not be prohibited from bringing future claims related to new wells, alternative water sources, additions to the current water system that may be needed, contamination associated with pollutants other than PFOA or damages for diminished property values. It also added $195,000 to the prior $850,000 settlement proposal.
Judith Enck, who recently stepped down as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 2, last week wrote a letter to Borge characterizing the agreement as "an illustration of two experienced companies taking advantage of a small community."
Howard Freed, a former director of the state Health Department's Center for Environmental Health, said there is no reason for the village to give up its legal rights.
Freed testified before the state legislature last year at hearings examining why the state Health Department declined to warn residents to stop drinking the water for more than a year after the PFOA was discovered.
"Other similar communities have gotten much more compensation for similar damages done," Freed wrote in a letter to the mayor. "The agreement is, in my opinion, so very favorable to the polluters and so very unfavorable to the people of Hoosick Falls that, if signed, it may even hold Hoosick Falls up for ridicule as a national example of what not to do."
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was used in manufacturing there by at least five companies that owned and operated the McCafrey Street plant since 1956. But other manufacturing plants in the village, and dumping sites, are also being investigated.
Two Ohio attorneys who led groundbreaking court cases involving the toxic chemical PFOA said Hoosick Falls' officials may be misleading the public into thinking they reviewed or endorsed a proposed settlement between the village and two companies blamed for polluting the community's water supply.
Hoosick Falls Deputy Mayor Ric DiDonato on Saturday said he did not intend to mislead the public when he wrote in a Facebook post that the village's "legal team" spoke with the two Cincinnati lawyers, D. David Altman and Robert A. Bilott, "and many other legal experts to get their opinions on the development of this agreement throughout the process."
Altman and Bilott, known for their work in groundbreaking cases versus the DuPont corporation over PFOA contamination in the Ohio Valley, said they never reviewed or endorsed the settlement agreement.
"I was just sharing anecdotally what our legal team told us," DiDonato said in an email to the Times Union. "My comment was in no way indicative of Mr. Altman or Mr. Bilott supporting this agreement. Just that they had spoken with them among others. To imply otherwise would be incorrect. I firmly believe our attorneys spoke with a litany of experts throughout the process. They are good at what they do."
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