Students have returned to the SUNY New Paltz campus feeling cautiously optimistic following a mandatory evacuation after college officials learned the village’s water supply was contaminated with trace amounts of fuel oil earlier this month.
The water contamination made it difficult to feed resident students on campus, so the college administration canceled classes for three days “out of an abundance of caution for the safety and well-being of our students” until Monday, February 17.
Reports of an odor and strange taste in the water on campus began on Monday February 10 and a “Do not drink” advisory was issued by the New York State Department of Health and Ulster County Department of Health that afternoon. Emergency water supplies arrived on campus later that evening.
“I feel they did a decent job given the circumstances, with the gallons of water and the water truck. I just feel the students were left in a bad spot with no food and trying to get home on short notice,” said Sasha Parrish, fourth-year creative writing major.
On Tuesday, February 11, students received notice from school officials that classes for the rest of the week would be canceled. This was followed by a mandatory evacuation of most of the students living on campus, as the school could not provide enough food or water for them. The college instructed students in an email that those who were unable to leave campus should contact their resident director immediately for accommodations.
“I think it’s good that [campus administration] sent us home,” said third-year English student Ben Lamboy. “There was nothing else they could do besides close everything and put a giant water tank out. None of that worked, it didn’t get fixed so their last resort was, ‘Okay, we’re sending everyone home.’”
The Office of Student Affairs worked closely with Trailways of New York to get students home as fast as possible following the evacuation notice.
On Tuesday afternoon, bus tickets regularly priced at $21.75 for students were able to be purchased at a discounted price of $18.
Students crammed inside of The Office of Student Activities and Union Services, where tickets were being sold.
Additional buses were scheduled to depart from the campus transportation hub on Feb. 11 and Feb. 12. to New York City’s Port Authority and Long Island with stops at Nanuet, White Plains, New Rochelle, Queens Village, Mineola, Hempstead, Massapequa and Babylon.
However, several hundred students, including international students and those who live out-of-state, were stuck on campus, with no way to get back home. Water tankers were set up on campus, and sanitary food was provided for them at Peregrine Dining Hall.
Residence Life staff organized activities, including a trip to the Pallisades Mall, for those who did not go home – 233 students, mostly international students, resident assistants and athletes in season.
“Luckily I was able to cook for myself with the water provided by the school,” said third-year Black Studies Major Michael Rhodes. “Besides that I went about my days regularly.”
The contamination was determined to be the result of a compromised underground fuel line in the heating system at the New Paltz village water treatment plant.
Village of New Paltz and Ulster County officials say the line was compromised during work performed by a private contractor at the treatment plant in September 2019.
An undetermined amount of heating fuel seeped into one of the village’s reservoirs. That reservoir — reservoir 4 — is being bypassed until officials can determine the extent of the spill. The village is waiting for test results to show how bad the contamination is near that reservoir and when it will be back in use.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials sent emergency water and initiated testing of the water supply lines upon learning of the contamination.
The source of the contamination was announced by Cuomo on Wednesday, February 12 after village officials and the Department of Environmental Conservation found a compromised fuel line that serviced the village’s water treatment plant heating system. The affected reservoir is being bypassed by the village while experts from the DEC Spill Response oversee its cleanup.
Flushing of the water supply lines began on February 12, additional testing on February 13 showed no detectable traces of petroleum compound, and Gov. Cuomo lifted the “Do Not Drink” advisory early on Feb. 14.
“While we are pleased with the outcome, we will continue to be vigilant and ready to confront any and all threats to our public health,” Cuomo said.
While the advisory was in place, the state deployed about 50,000 gallons of water to residents and students. The water was distributed in locations throughout New Paltz and the SUNY New Paltz campus. The state also provided water to New Paltz Central School District.
“I just filled up my jugs with water from the truck provided. It wasn’t ideal but these things happen,” said fourth-year geology student Liam Welling who lives off campus. “I think a lot of the panic was unnecessary.”
The state Department of Health has assured the New Paltz community that the water is now safe to drink. However, some are taking a wait-and-see approach and are erring on the side of caution.
“I really did not personally feel comfortable taking a shower because even though [the school] deemed it safe, I really did not trust going,” said third-year history student Michael Simkhai.
As a result of the water crisis, SUNY New Paltz administration is requiring professors to develop plans to make-up classes and missed exams and assignments, as the New York State Education Department requires credit classes to meet for at least 12.5 class hours per semester credit.
Campus administrators say every water line in every building on campus has been thoroughly flushed. Students are asked to contact Mike Malloy, the college’s director of Environmental Health and Safety, at extension 2385 if they continue to notice anything unusual with the water.
The Village of New Paltz Board of Trustees and the Village Planning Board held a special executive session on February 24 “to consider the engagement of special counsel to represent the Village” in connection with contamination near Reservoir 4.
College President Donald Christian thanks the staff, faculty and students for how the campus community weathered the storm.
“We made our decisions … based on available information and our commitment to the well-being of our community,” Christian said. “We always look to learn from every incident so that we can respond even better when the next issue arises. We are grateful to be part of a special community that weathers storms like this in such a supportive and collaborative way.”
This article was reported and written by the following students in the Spring 2020 Journalsim 2 class at SUNY New Paltz: Habib Apooyin, Kaihl A. Brassfield, Norma Brickner, Jared Castaneda, Dana Lee, Jared LaBrecque, Kerri Kolensky, Lara Morales, William Oldakowski, Nicholas Porpora, Kaylee Ramos, Liam Sullivan, Annamarie Sparacino, Megan Wilson, and Hannah Wright.