Reports of water contamination in U.S. communities appear to be happening more frequently than before. What used to be perceived as an international problem is now occurring in our own backyards. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance recently deployed a National Response Team to the small community of Hoosick Falls, New York.
The contamination was actually discovered in the community of 3,500 in 2014. Perflorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is a known carcinogen once used in the manufacturing of non stick coating such as Teflon. The source was traced to a factory currently owned by Saint Gobain Performance Plastics, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now the contamination has reached municipal wells in addition to several private wells outside the village.
“This disaster is still unfolding and its also unfolding in neighboring communities in New York and Vermont,” said Katherine ‘Cully’ Culpepper, PDA National Response Team lead. “Everybody hears about Flint, Michigan because it is all over the national news, but this is an issue that is bubbling up in other communities across the nation and is going to come to the forefront as a serious and growing concern for all of us.”
To make matters worse, severe weather in January caused pipes to freeze and burst at the First United Church Presbyterian, flooding several rooms with the contaminated water. PDA provided a grant to assist the church with clean up.
Culpepper and another NRT volunteer, Sally Dyer, recently visited the community at the invitation of Transitional Presbyter Shannan Vance-Ocampo of Albany Presbytery, and attended worship services at the church on February 28th. Following worship, they met with the session as well as a group of community leaders.
“We were heartened because the community and its leaders seem very resilient and resourceful,” said Culpepper. “We were warmly received and people seemed to appreciate our presence and the reminder that the larger church is with them in prayer and also in person and we plan to be there in the future as well.”
The Rev. Donna Elia, pastor of First United, said her congregation and nearby residents are doing okay, despite the problems.
“The hard thing is the long-term unknown,” she said. “Right now, people are getting bottled water and helping each other out to make sure people who can’t access the water are getting it.”
Having PDA representation in their worship services was extremely helpful, according to Elia.
“The community is exhausted by the disaster,” said Culpepper. “There are a lot of unknowns and the company responsible for the contamination is funding a water filtration system, but it is unclear whether that would be 100 percent affective.
Culpepper says work is just beginning at the PDA/NRT level.
“It’s going to be a long-term recovery in a different way than we see after a tornado or a flood,” she said. “We encouraged church and community leaders to form a long-term recovery team and are working with them to coordinate future training opportunities and support.”
Another area of concern for Hoosick Falls residents is property value.
“What about those who may want to sell their property at some point?” asked Elia. “We have older residents who are beginning to think about downsizing and selling their home, but the likelihood of selling is not really strong and banks are not granting mortgages in the area.”
Water contamination and drought are problems PDA leaders are expecting to take additional time and resources in years to come.
“PDA is in the beginning stages of learning how to respond to these issues within the U.S.,” said Rick Turner, national associate for disaster response with PDA. “PDA will work with our sister PC(USA) ministries and with our National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) partners to hone our responses so we can do the most good with the available resources.”
Those interested in supporting efforts to help communities impacted by water contamination can visit the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website and designate gifts to DR000015 – Hoosick Falls.