“Mothers of Flint” visit N.Y. poisoned water village
Darlene McClendon speaking at a Hoosick Falls forum as part of the “Mothers of Flint Tour” Oct. 6. | NYSUT.

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. (PAI) — It isn’t just lead in the water and it isn’t just in Flint. And that’s the message of a group of mothers, led by a union teacher from the poisoned Michigan city, are taking on the road.

Darlene McClendon, a leader of the United Teachers of Flint, the AFT local there, brought that warning to a forum in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., a small village in northeastern Rensselaer County bisected by the Hoosic River. It’s on the edge of the Albany metro area.

It was also the first stop in the “Mothers of Flint” tour, on Oct. 6, AFT reported. It won’t be the last.

That’s because instances of water contamination, thanks to corporate greed, political inattention or worse, are sprouting nationwide, from the libraries of Washington, D.C., to the schools of Portland, Ore.

“Word spread like wildfire throughout the city” of Flint, McClendon told the forum at Hoosick Falls, about the lead-contaminated water spurting from faucets and taps. And her students, elementary-schoolers, would ask her: “Am I going to die?”

Lead in water causes irreversible brain damage, behavior and learning problems, and that’s what happened in the majority-minority city of Flint after a state-GOP-named “czar” took over an allegedly financially failing government and vowed to save money.

One way he did so was to switch the city’s water source to the polluted Flint River without installing needed filters and devices to keep lead in Flint’s aging water pipes from leaching into the water people drank, used and bathed in.

In the three years since the switch, McClendon told the group that a majority of her students have developed aggressive behavior, nervousness and attention deficit disorder. Behavior and learning problems are just several side effects of exposure to lead.

But the water problem in Hoosick Falls, an overwhelmingly white village of a few thousand people – one third of them parents with children under the age of 18 – isn’t lead. It’s another chemical: PFOA.

PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) found in the drinking water in Hoosick Falls, suppresses the human immune system. Federal studies identify it as a possible cancer-causing substance. It also upsets the human hormone system and can produce thyroid problems and lymphoma.

As a result of the PFOA in the water – caused by two big nearby manufacturing plants, run by Honeywell and Saint Gobain—the Hoosick Falls residents, like those in Flint, now are scared of their tap water and have been told not to use it. They too have to find and transport jugs of fresh water for their children’s baths, for cleaning fruit and vegetables and to cook.

Chemistry teacher Brian Van Arsdale, president of the Hoosick Falls Teachers Association, told AFT he remembers a student brought him a letter his family received from the local water department explaining PFOA was in the water. To answer the student’s question about “What does this mean?” Van Arsdale and his colleagues in the school’s science department researched the issue, and they were horrified.

“The next day in class, I told all my students to stop drinking the water,” he said.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation sets an “acceptable” PFOA water contamination level of 70 parts per trillion. Other states’ acceptable levels are 20 parts or fewer. Testing of students showed some Hoosick Falls water had 120 parts/trillion of PFOA.

The Hoosick Falls contamination has already drawn attention from the state government, including legislation against further water pollution.

Robert Allen, Hoosick Falls’ secondary schools’ band teacher, said the town suffered “a loss of innocence. You can’t undo what you’ve learned. It has profoundly changed us.” And Hoosick Falls mothers talked about the illness and loss from poisoned water.

Michelle Baker told her 14-year-old daughter they were safe because they had a well and didn’t depend on the town’s water supply. Wrong. The PFOA was in the ground water – and the well water – too. The contamination, she said, came from the Saint Gobain plant.

“I was a teacher for many years. We always worried about bullies,” said New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. “I think we have a couple of bullies here.” He pledged continued union support, promising: “We can change things.” NYSUT  is the combined AFT-NEA union in the Empire State.

“These moms fight like wolverines every day,” Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Troy, told AFT. He claims state officials withheld information and failed to follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to protect residents from cancer-causing water. “This is a form of corporate bullying and government bullying,” he told panelists.

NYSUT, the New York State Nurses Association and the Auto Workers support the probe of what happened in Hoosick Falls – and what to do about it. The UAW members had been working in the Honeywell plant in nearby Green Island, making airplane brake pads. The firm has locked them out in a contract dispute.

Susan Brennan was pregnant while she worked at Honeywell. Her son has elevated levels of lead and delayed responses to sound. “Honeywell needs to be accountable,” she said. The firm “used to take barrels of resin and throw them out back in Green Island.”

The battle for accountability for PFOA contamination includes lobbying for money for medical care and for regular, free testing for life – similar to demands by the mothers of Flint.

Liza Frenette of NYSUT Communications provided most of the material for this story.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.