SUNY Students Evacuated In Wake of Village Water Contamination

Starting Monday afternoon, water bottles and tanks were sent to provide fresh water for students. Photo by Max Freebern.

***Corrections were made to this article as of Feb. 26, 2020. Updated information is typed in bold***

Residents can sip easy knowing their drinking water is safe, following a safety scare last Monday.

While it’s safe to drink from the faucet, village officials are still unsure of the extent of contamination from the compromised fuel line 500 feet away from Reservoir 4 of the Village Water District (VWD). The village hired a contractor to conduct tests of soil samples at different depths of the reservoir to see the extent of the spill. The affected reservoir has been bypassed while officials await results.

“We have not received any complaints of people finding smells or tastes they did not like [after the advisory was lifted],” said Mayor Tim Rogers. 

Rogers explained that no contaminants were found in water samples taken after the water system was fully flushed. 

According to the New York State Department of Health (DOH), although none of the compounds in petroleum were found in samples taken on Feb. 13, “some people can smell petroleum compounds at levels lower than can be quantified by even the most sensitive laboratory instruments, so it is not uncommon to detect a smell with no measured levels from the lab.” The “non-detectable” levels of petroleum that were published in a previous press release meant that the levels of contaminants in the water were less than the lowest level a laboratory can test for. Residents are advised to flush indoor plumbing and clean water filtration systems if necessary. 

“If you drank water that had odors, it may have contained a small amount of petroleum compounds that were diluted by a larger volume of water,” the DOH press release reads. “These low-level exposures do not typically result in long-term health effects. Any health symptoms resulting from such short-term exposures to low levels of petroleum compounds would resolve once the exposure has stopped.”

SUNY New Paltz students were sent packing Tuesday afternoon after the safety of their water supply was in question with local and state officials. 

SUNY students were first informed about the issue at around 11 a.m. on Monday morning, through the school’s  “NPAlert” text-notification system. Just after 2 p.m., a follow-up was sent, alerting students that the Village had issued an advisory to avoid drinking, cooking or making ice with the water.

Two days later, residents were still none the wiser as to the source of the water crisis. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has deployed over 40,000 gallons of fresh water to New Paltz as the DOH and Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) scurry to expedite test results from multiple locations, according to the village website. Meanwhile, SUNY New Paltz made the decision to mandate a campus evacuation, active until Saturday, citing student safety and the logistical difficulties for providing clean water for all students and faculty as the main reasons behind the decision.

According to a press release from the governor’s office, an employee from the Village’s water treatment plant reported soft sheen on the surface of the water at Reservoir 4. The DEC and village linked this observation to a compromised fuel line from the treatment plant’s heating system. DEC Spill Response experts are currently developing a cleanup plan to address the spill.

“Protecting public health and safety is our top priority and with the potential source of this contamination now identified, our work to restore New Paltz’s water system and put an end to this situation continues,” Cuomo said in the press release. “As this happens, we will ensure residents continue to have access to clean water and the community has the support and access to resources that it needs.” 

The Do Not Drink advisory was posted on the village’s website in response to several complaints about the tap water’s odor in the VWD. Mayor Tim Rogers claimed these complaints began on Saturday, Feb. 8. Residents were advised to avoid drinking, making ice-cubes out of or cooking from their faucets. Bathing, showering and washing dishes and clothes were still deemed safe.

In the past, residents have complained about brown water in their faucets, but that issue was found to be caused by scheduled water main flushes and deemed harmless. These new complaints were different. 

Facebook posts soon popped up in the “Village Vibe” and “New Paltz Community” pages with residents worriedly looking for updates. Facebook users Jon Cohen and Kristi Parnell both made posts about a strong oil smell coming from their tap water. Many residents posted comments agreeing with them. 

SUNY New Paltz is one of the primary customers of the VWD, according to Rogers. By the early afternoon, Steven Duetsch, executive director of Campus Auxiliary Services, announced that the campus dining services would cease all water-related cooking (coffee, fountain soda, pasta, etc.). Peregrine Dining Hall remained open during normal business hours, using unaffected water that had been delivered to campus for cooking, while The Roost, Nesters and Element 93 remained open for “grab and go” purposes only. All other dining options were closed until further notice. Soon after, a strongly worded petition titled “No Classes Until Water Contamination is Identified and Solved,” surfaced on Change.org under the username Kaitlyn Connoly. The petition — which called for college administration to cancel classes until the water problem was resolved — attracted 3,341 signatures as of Feb. 12 at 11 a.m.  

In order to aid the frustrated community, the village set up numerous water stations for residents and students. According to the village site, a 6,700 gallon water tanker was available at Village Hall in addition to three scattered 500 gallon “water buffalos” and 25 pallets of  bottled water. SUNY New Paltz was provided with two 6,700 gallon water tanks, one 500 gallon water buffalo, 24 pallets of  bottled water and 12 additional pallets arrived on Thursday. 

For students remaining on campus, water was available in the first floor lobbies of the Haggerty Administration Building, Sojourner Truth Library, Wooster Hall, Jacobsen Faculty Tower and the University Police Department, as well as in the form of water coolers located across campus. DEC contractors checked the daily water level of the water buffalos to ensure all residents had adequate drinking water. Those who wanted to fill up on the fresh water were asked to bring their own containers. 

For questions and concerns contact the New York State Department of Health Metropolitan Regional Office at 845-794-2045.

Max Freebern
About Max Freebern 89 Articles
Max Freebern is a fourth-year journalism major who’s going into his fifth semester working for Oracle. He worked his way from a contributor, to copy editor and has served as the News editor for the past few semester. While he normally focuses on local government his true passion is writing immersive work and human profiles.