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Brown, contaminated drinking water at issue in Uniondale

Complaints about brown water in Uniondale have led residents to question the integrity of the community’s water tower. // Photo by Cody Hmelar/Long Island Advocate

By Cody Hmelar

Uniondale resident Pearl Jacobs awakes and grabs a glass of water in her kitchen. At first, she thinks nothing of it, but small flaking particles stick to the back of her teeth. She turns on the lights and notices that the once clear water is a deep brown.

This is the experience that many in Uniondale and across America face daily. Many of the major water crises making national headlines are from contaminated water supplies in places such as Lake Huron in Flint, Mich., or the Delaware River in New Jersey. But there are water-quality issues that hit closer to home.

Water towers across the United States have been flagged for neglect after numerous reports of discolored water and sediment have been found in residents’ pipes. Older steel water towers, such as those common on Long Island, including in Uniondale, must be maintained regularly to prevent degradation of the structures. Newer designs of water towers use a glass casing in which water is stored to minimize rust or other particulate matter from contaminating the water.

The lack of consistent regulations and standards across the U.S. specifically targeting water towers has led to creative interpretations by various water districts on best practices for maintaining a clean water supply. In Uniondale, maintenance of its water tower has been deferred by at least 10 years. According to a Uniondale Herald report, the tower has not been worked on for more than 25 years. Towers require maintenance every 12 to 15 years.

Long Island has a long history of concerns about health-related environmental issues, particularly surrounding clean water. 1,4-dioxane, an industrial solvent, has been found in Uniondale’s water, according to a recent Town of Hempstead water-quality report.

Dioxane is used in paper, cotton and textile processing. It is also found in automotive coolant. Short-term exposure is known to cause some irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Larger quantities can cause liver and kidney damage. The health effects of longer-term exposure to relatively low levels of 1,4-dioxane are unknown. The chemical has been established as an anticipated or probable carcinogen, meaning that it may cause cancer, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. However, there have not been enough human studies to say definitively. Additionally, studies on non-cancerous outcomes are limited.

The Town of Hempstead has been issued a maintenance deferral by the State Department of Health, giving it greater time to correct 1,4-dioxane contamination. Reports on water quality by the Town of Hempstead Department of Water cover the Bowling Green Estates, East Meadow, Levittown, Roosevelt Field and Uniondale water districts.

Although contaminants are found in all water supplies, the main concern in Uniondale is the deferred maintenance of the water tower and replacement of water mains, residents say.

Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin’s office did not respond when asked for comment on plans to provide maintenance for the Uniondale water tower and to reduce levels of dioxane and forever chemicals like PFAS in the water supply.

According to a Uniondale Herald report, Town of Hempstead Water Commissioner John Reinhardt said there are plans to update Uniondale’s water tower in 2025. “We base our maintenance on the conditions, and the tower behind Turtle Hook [Middle School] is next on the list based on those conditions, and after that, the Hempstead Boulevard tower will be next,” he said. Residents, however, said they are wary of another potential failed town promise.

Brown water pouring out of Uniondale resident Pearl Jacobs’s faucet. // Photo courtesy Pearl Jacobs

Jacobs has lived in Uniondale for more than 30 years, the past three of which her water has been brown. The pipes “probably need to be flushed out,” Jacobs recalled being told when she complained initially to the Hempstead Water Department.

A crew from the department came out and flushed the water from her block’s fire hydrant for over two hours. “They told me it was just iron, and that it was good for me,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs is also president of the Nostrand Gardens Civic Association, which represents the interests of Uniondale’s residents in the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County. Jacobs is not the only one suffering from poor water quality in Uniondale.

Delfina Salvador, a seventh-grader at Turtle Hook Middle School, said she has noticed brown water coming from the taps both at home and school. “It’s not right that they [the town] haven’t fixed the water tower in over 15 years,” Salvador said.

The exact age of Uniondale’s water tower is not publicly known, but by the growing levels of rust on its exterior, it is clearly aging. Nearby West Hempstead had its water tower replaced in 2019 after the Town of Hempstead unanimously voted to pass an $8.4 million municipal bond to replace it and fund other projects throughout the water district. The original West Hempstead tower was built in 1939.

Reinhardt did not reply to The Advocate when asked for comment on the quality of the community’s water and any possible future plans for work on the Uniondale water tower.

Although no official statement has been made on the physical state of the tower, a member of the Uniondale Fire Department did say he observed visible leaks in two locations on it.

“The way a water tower looks says a lot about how a community is treated,” Jacobs said. “Ours hasn’t been touched in over 15 years.”

Elaine Smith, a 32-year resident of Uniondale, said she is deeply dissatisfied with how she perceives the Town of Hempstead treats Uniondale. “I pay a lot in taxes, and I want to ensure that my funds are returned to my community to keep my community pristine,” Smith said.

Although not related to the water tower specifically, both Jacobs and Nicole Burke, a realtor and community advocate for Uniondale, noted the high concentration of laundromats in the area. Jacobs said she worries about the potential for runoff from detergents and is advocating for a moratorium on permits allowing additional laundromats to open.

Salvador said she and her classmates worry that they will not see clean water in their community anytime soon. “They need to do right by us and our community — for myself, my family and everyone in Uniondale,” Salvador said.