Long Island earned a distinction in 2016 it didn’t want: Some of the region’s drinking water was found to have among the highest levels nationwide of 1,4-dioxane, a chemical the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls a “likely human carcinogen” but doesn’t regulate.
As a result, New York’s state Department of Health began its own “Operation Warp Speed” to deal with high 1,4-dioxane levels, and approved a treatment system that effectively removes the chemical from the water system, said Paul Granger, the superintendent of the Hicksville Water District, one of about 50 water suppliers on Long Island. Earlier this year, the state—the first in the country to regulate the chemical—set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) in drinking water for the solvent, which can appear in everything from industrial degreasers to laundry detergent.
But one advocacy group is suing to have the area use New York City’s “pristine water supply,” claiming the new treatment system, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars to install and run, isn’t the most efficient way to detox Long Island’s water.
Long Island, unlike New York City, gets its drinking water from a system of hundreds of underground wells. Much of the island also is unsewered, with many residents using septic tanks. Years of heavy industry, along with residential waste, has left many concerned about chemicals that have potentially seeped into its aquifer.
Thousands of chemicals in water aren’t regulated, but several years ago, the EPA designated 1,4-dioxane, which is manufactured by Dow Chemical Co, an “emerging contaminant,” meaning it could pose health concerns. In 2016, more than 70% of Long Island’s wells were found to have some trace of 1,4-dioxane, making it a national hot spot for the chemical, according to EPA data.
Founded in part by local environmental lawyers, Long Island Pure Water, which says it advocates for the region’s “right to a sustainable pure drinking water source,” filed suit against the DOH in November, asking a state court to revoke the MCL because, they claim, the agency failed to meet its legal obligation to explore “alternative water sources.”
The group also has the backing of Dow, which is facing dozens of lawsuits on Long Island over the 1,4-dioxane contamination.
The advocacy group said instead of regulating the chemical and forcing water suppliers to strip it from Long Island’s water, the DOH should have directed Long Island to tap into New York City’s drinking water supply—which flows from clean, upstate reservoirs—and study the aquifer below a protected forested region in central Long Island, the suit argues.
The group also claims the DOH didn’t perform a cost-benefit analysis and that its new 1,4-dioxane standard, of 1 part per billion, isn’t based on scientific evidence.
DOH spokesman Gary Holmes said “the agency does not comment on pending litigation.” But the DOH says that the new regulation, created under the guidance of the Drinking Water Quality Council—a panel of health and scientific experts, as well as government officials and water suppliers—set protective, achievable and enforceable standards for emerging contaminants and were subject to extensive public comment.
Nicholas Rigano, the lawyer for LIPW and one of its founders, said the group is looking for a permanent solution to Long Island’s decadeslong problems with water contamination and has reached out to several parties for support. Dow has provided financial support for the group, he said.
Dow is currently being sued by 27 water suppliers on Long Island, which accuse the chemical manufacturer, along with other chemical companies, of knowingly allowing 1,4-dioxane to pollute drinking water.
Ashley Mendoza, a spokeswoman for Dow, said, “We strongly believe that a water sharing solution would provide the citizens of Long Island with sustainable, cost-effective access to clean, plentiful and reliable drinking water for decades to come.”
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit which has fought for years for the state to regulate 1,4-dioxane, says Dow’s support for the case has an obvious agenda.
“It’s a myopic lawsuit to help industry because it lets companies like Dow Chemical off the hook for having to contribute to help cleaning up our water,” she said.
It doesn’t “make sense to assume that Long Island could be 100% dependent on NYC water, especially if there are issues of drought upstate,” said Ms. Esposito.
The idea of connecting at least some of Long Island to New York City’s water, which doesn’t suffer from 1,4-dioxane contamination, isn’t particularly controversial. It just may not be a quick fix. And it would need to be done with utmost care, including monitoring how NYC’s water reacts with Long Island’s pipes, to avoid a situation like the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
New York state’s 2021 budget, signed in April, included funding for a feasibility study of the issue. Long Island’s Nassau County borders Queens, and some piping links already exist, experts and officials said—though it is unclear how much it would cost, or how long it would take, to make the systems work together.
A water-sharing project like this could take five to 10 years to complete, said Dennis Kelleher, an engineer and a spokesperson for the Long Island Water Conference, which represents most of Long Island’s water suppliers.
On New York City’s capabilities to share or sell its water to Long Island, Ted Timbers, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said: “There would be significant technical, logistical and legal challenges to the proposal, but we will work collaboratively with our neighbors on Long Island and our partners at the State on the feasibility study.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who represents parts of western Long Island, said he proposed the water-sharing feasibility study in October 2019, partly in response to the price of the new 1,4-dioxane water treatment systems, which use what are called Advanced Oxidation Processes.
The systems are expected to cost Long Island water suppliers at least $840 million. State grants are helping to pay for some of that, but eventually it will likely translate to higher water bills for residents, Mr. Kaminsky said.
“I think studying NYC water is important, but I don’t think any one solution is going to be the answer and we need to give municipalities and water districts as many weapons and options in fighting emerging contaminants,” Mr. Kaminsky said. “I disagree with the need to tie any of this up in the courts. it’s important that we keep moving forward.