Anti Westchester Airport Expansion Group Seeks Drinking Water Protection Legislation

George Klein, chair of the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion, laid out a series of recommendations the organization is making to County Executive George Latimer during a press conference on April 17 in Rye Brook. Neal Rentz Photo

Concerned about a pollutant that could contaminate drinking water and pose serious health risks, the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion laid out a series of recommendations to County Executive George Latimer and state government at a press conference on April 17 in Rye Brook.

Since 2018, the County has been conducting testing at several well sites at the airport and has hired an environmental consultant for guidance. Tests completed in September indicated extremely high levels of PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) under the northern part of the airport, including 14,940 parts per trillion PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and 57,390 PFAS in the most contaminated well, according to the Coalition.

“We want a vibrant but limited county airport that is environmentally responsible,” Coalition Chairperson George Klein said last week. “We don’t want to close the airport.”

Klein said the recommendations are:

–Have the county approve legislation that would mandate airport water testing.

–Pass state legislation that would ban the PFAS firefighting foam, once the Federal Aviation Administration allows the county to do so. The current FAA policy is to mandate the storage of PFAS at airports for potential firefighting, Klein said.

–Have PFAS testing done by the Westchester Joint Waterworks.

–Create the position of and environmental airport “Czar.”

–End all privatization plans.

“The airport is located about 1,500 feet from the Kensico Reservoir, which is the source of drinking water for 80 percent of Westchester and 90 percent of New York City,” Klein said. “It is a critical waterbody.”

PFAS is a class of harmful chemicals which have been found in water sources in other parts of the country, including Newburgh, Klein said. “It can get into surface water and it can go into groundwater,” he said.

PFAS was previously used by the Air National Guard at the airport during its firefighting exercises, Klein said. The Guard left in 1983, but high concentrations of PFAS are still being measured at the airport, he said.

According to the Coalition, exposure to PFAS has been linked to serious health impacts, including cancer, thyroid disease and developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, liver damage and immune effects.

“The county didn’t break it, but we want them to fix it,” Klein said, adding, “Westchester County government has done a hell of a lot to address this situation.” The county has resumed regular groundwater testing, which was suspended in 2011 under former County Executive Rob Astorino and the county, under Latimer, has brought in expert consultants “to deal with the situation,” Klein said.

On April 16 Latimer and County Attorney John Nonna held a press conference about contamination at the airport. County officials said they were committed to working with the DEC and New York City Department of Environmental Protection to protect drinking water. The company responsible for manufacturing PFAS is 3M, which the county is taking steps to sue.

Regarding the coalition’s recommendations, Nonna said the county is working on an an executive order and legislation to mandate permanent airport water testing. If that is in place, testing would not be left to the discretion of future administrations.

He also said that as part of the budget authorization bill approved last year for the FAA, the agency will allow local governments to find alternatives to PFAS by 2022, which is currently mandated to be used to extinguish airplane fires. Westchester will look for an alternative for the substance, he said. The Air National Guard used two forms of the chemical, PFOA and PFOS, for firefighting training when it practices at the county airport, Nonna said.

The county also is proposing to have PFAS testing done by the Westchester Joint Waterworks, a separate entity from county government, he said. However, the county has no authority to require it to do testing.

Nonna said a current county employee, who he declined to identify, performs the task of an airport “czar” and the administration did not want to create a separate position. Furthermore, any future decisions whether to pursue or abandon privatization would be up to Latimer.

Several elected public officials attended last week’s press conference including state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) and Assemblyman David Buchwald (D-White Plains).

“DEC needs to continue to be a partner in this effort,” Mayer said. “David and I are very committed to pushing DEC to do all that they need to do and to be as effective a tester and an advocate as you need from the community standpoint.”

Meyer said she and Buchwald wrote a letter to the DEC about a year ago calling on the agency to be active and engaged in testing.

“When it comes to environmental protection, that’s really where the state has a role,” Buchwald said, In September, then-DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos stated that the monitoring would not only continue, but it would be expanded at the airport, Buchwald said.