NEWBURGH, N.Y. ― Lately, Wayne Vradenburgh daydreams about a demotion.
Vradenburgh has spent his entire career working for the water department of Newburgh, an upstate New York city of 28,000 people, most of whom are Hispanic or black. He started as an assistant water maintenance mechanic at 18, repairing fire hydrants. Two decades later, in 2016, he took the top job of superintendent. He made plans to fix leaky pipes, and mostly just aspired to keep things running smoothly for the poverty-stricken city of dilapidated brownstones nestled on the Hudson River.
Then, a mere two weeks after he took over, state health officials pulled up in his driveway. They had grim news. Lake Washington, the 1.3 billion-gallon reservoir that had served the city since the 1880s, had tested positive for a dangerous chemical. Vradenburgh soon found himself frantically studying the names of tongue-twister toxins he’d never heard of, going head-to-head with state and federal agencies, and working 70-hour weeks overseeing $50 million in emergency projects.