By ANI FREEDMAN, InDepthNH.org
The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services approved a new air permit on Wednesday for the manufacturing company Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, whose facility is in Merrimack.
The permit would allow the company to expand their operations in fabrics and films coated in PFAS chemicals, and to continue emitting such toxic chemicals as long as those emissions meet New Hampshire state limits. The permit caps emissions for the four different PFAS regulated by the state: 0.69 pounds or less per year for PFOA, 0.90 pounds or less per year for PFOS, 0.98 pounds or less per year for PFNA, and 0.75 pounds or less per year for PFHxS.
Also known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—are widely used chemicals toxic to humans and animals that break down slowly over time, hence their “forever” nickname.
Rep. Rosemarie Rung, D-Merrimack, has been active in the fight against PFAS pollution in Merrimack, as a resident and representative. “I’ve called for Saint-Gobain to be closed before,” she said in an interview. “The water and soil are already contaminated. Why add to it?” Rung said, referring to the new air permit.
Saint-Gobain responded by email to questions from InDepthNH.org saying: “Saint-Gobain is, and always has been, committed to serving as sound environmental stewards, and continues to work closely with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services on ongoing remediation work within the defined remediation area. These are important initiatives, and we will continue to work with local stakeholders in furtherance of these efforts.” The company also listed in detail the work done. (See list near the end of this story.)
In 2016, Saint-Gobain, which supplies materials for construction and industrial work, was found by the DES to have been polluting the groundwater supplied to two public water supply wells near their facility in Merrimack with PFAS chemicals.
Merrimack residents first became aware that their water was polluted with PFAS in 2016 after the highly toxic PFOA chemical was discovered from groundwater testing. But they’d been living with the pollutants for decades, as Saint-Gobain acquired the site in 2002 according to the DES. That same year, Saint-Gobain closed their facilities in Bennington, Vermont after complaints of PFOA pollution. In April 2022, according to public court records, Saint-Gobain settled a class action lawsuit and paid plaintiffs $34 million. The complaint alleges that for over 20 years, the company had been “discharging significant amounts of PFOA into the environment through air emissions” and into the soil and water.
Now that Saint-Gobain has just been approved by the DES to expand their operating capacity, residents living near the company will continue to be exposed to the PFAS pollution, with only four PFAS chemicals being regulated of the thousands that exist according to the EPA.
One of the PFAS chemicals not regulated by New Hampshire is GenX, or HFPO-DA, one of the primary PFAS chemicals actively emitted from Saint-Gobain, according to Denise Trabbic-Pointer, Toxics and Remediation Specialist for the Michigan chapter of the environmental organization the Sierra Club. It took the place of PFOA at Saint-Gobain, Trabbic-Pointer said, which is one of the most harmful of PFAS chemicals. The GenX chemicals have a shorter half-life, meaning they break down quicker than other PFAS—yet that doesn’t lessen their impact on people’s health necessarily. “It’s a whole lot more harmful than PFOA, what they’re regulating,” Trabbic-Pointer said.
Trabbic-Pointer called the air permit approval a “great disappointment” after having done extensive work in Merrimack to combat PFAS pollution from Saint-Gobain. She is a retired chemical engineer, environmental and occupational health manager, and has developed a specialty for understanding PFAS in her volunteer work with the Sierra Club.
The CDC states that while scientists are still learning about the health effects of PFAS exposure, research suggests that high levels of certain PFAS are connected to increased risk of testicular or kidney cancer, increased cholesterol, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, among other possible damage to newborns and animals. PFAS were found in 100 soil samples across New Hampshire in a 2021 study by the United States Geological Survey. But it’s not just in the soil.
It’s in groundwater, surface water, and food, especially as PFAS leech into bodies of water and accumulate in fish and other aquatic life, according to the EPA.
This compounded exposure has led to various health impacts directly linked to PFAS, especially for the people of Merrimack and other towns near the Saint-Gobain plant, according to Merrimack town councilor and state Rep. Nancy Murphy. In December, the Department of Health and Human Services found a “statistically significant” higher than expected number of kidney cancer diagnoses from 2009 to 2018 in Merrimack. Kidney cancer is one of the primary cancers that the CDC attributes to PFAS exposure.
Murphy was able to get a bill passed that funds the Department of Health and Human Services to pursue a Kidney Cancer Incidence Phase 3 Feasibility study to determine the cause of these higher rates and if environmental contaminants such as PFAS are related. The bill allocated $500,000 to the Department of Health and Human Services to carry out the study, which is still ongoing.
In 2018, Saint-Gobain entered a consent decree with the DES regarding the groundwater pollution found two years prior. In the agreement, Saint-Gobain was found responsible for a designated area in Merrimack with homes using water from the two public wells in which PFOA was found. The company was required to provide bottled water and point-of-entry filtration systems to homes with PFAS levels testing above state limits for three consecutive measurements within that predetermined area.
According to Mike Wimsatt, Waste Management Division Directorat the DES, 937 properties are eligible to receive bottled water from Saint-Gobain based on the most recent data. Wimsatt estimated those numbers are going to continue to decrease as more water filtration systems are installed in people’s properties.
Catherine Beahm, Administrator of the Air Resources Division of the DES, confirmed that while the initial consent decree stipulated a 65-square-mile area of contamination for which Saint-Gobain is responsible, the pollution likely exceeds those boundaries. “It’s probably much larger than that. That’s what we could get the company to agree upon,” Beahm said over the phone.
Since the PFOA contamination discovery in 2016, Saint-Gobain has taken to mitigate some of the PFAS pollution, Trabbic-Pointer said. In 2021, they implemented a Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO). Trabbic-Pointer says this mechanism pulls emissions from the byproducts of combustion and heating while adhering Teflon to fabric at Saint-Gobain. “But it isn’t going to fully destroy PFAS,” she said.
The air permit Saint-Gobain was approved for will allow the company to expand its production capacity. In this process, the company also applied for approval of a bypass stack, which Trabbic-Pointer says they had installed without the state’s knowledge in 2021, that she states funnels emissions directly into the air. According to the newly approved permit, Saint-Gobain may run the bypass system for 175 hours per calendar year in emergency situations to avoid damage to the RTO. Trabbic-Pointer said that since the bypass stack they built is short, the amount of emissions coming from the stack are “going to be pretty high, like before they installed the RTO.”
Trabbic-Pointer has voiced several recommendations to Saint-Gobain throughout the process of them acquiring the air permit. One of those being a scrubber system which would reduce the amount of PFAS being emitted—a mitigation strategy that Trabbic-Pointer says would be relatively inexpensive to carry out.
“Bottom line is they could have done more,” Trabbic-Pointer said.
Rep. Murphy has been fighting PFAS pollution since she was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives for her first term in 2018. “The laws that would be truly protective aren’t there yet, despite our best efforts to do the work,” Murphy said.
The EPA says the only way to protect your health from the effects of PFAS is to limit exposure. Repeated exposure to PFAS allows the chemicals to accumulate in the body, increasing the risk of harmful health impacts.
“How do we stop exposure when production continues?” Murphy said.
Laurene Allen, co-founder of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, pushed for a community-led health survey conducted in the summer of 2017 of 596 individuals in Merrimack. They found elevated levels of developmental, autoimmune, and kidney disorders among children as well as elevated cardiovascular and developmental disorders among long-term residents versus newer residents.
“No one in the state stood up for us,” said Allen over the phone, speaking about when she and other Merrimack locals first heard of the Saint-Gobain pollution. She’s continuing to speak out against Saint-Gobain’s new air permit. “An appalling amount of PFAS is coming out of those stacks,” she said. “We haven’t stopped the source.”
“The work will continue for a long time,” said Murphy of reducing PFAS exposure. One of the biggest concerns she has is how little people know about their exposure to PFAS seven years after the news broke of Saint-Gobain’s well contamination. “People don’t know. They just don’t know.”
Trabbic-Pointer works in several states to mitigate PFAS pollution through the Sierra Club but believes the emissions coming from Saint-Gobain are “historic.”
“You think about how much suffering the people have, the PFAS that’s in their blood that’s not going away for a long time,” Trabbic-Pointer said.
Saint-Gobain said in the email that their work to date includes:
“Installing a $5.6 million state-of-the-art Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) at the Merrimack facility, the best available technology for emissions control. Testing shows the RTO is working effectively to keep all emissions well below limits set by the state under our current air permit.
“In April 2022, the company finalized an agreement with the state to provide a permanent water solution for an additional 1,000 properties, bringing the total to over 1,600 properties.
“Installing more than 15 miles of water lines, with work underway to design an additional 3 miles of water line extensions and to evaluate the feasibility of an additional 8 miles of water line extensions;
“Implementing a Point-of-Entry Treatment (POET) System installation program to filter and treat water entering homes or buildings, which is currently underway.”
“Building a closed-loop wastewater system at the Merrimack facility, eliminating all process water discharge to the local wastewater treatment facility;
“Establishing a POET Rebate Program, allowing eligible residents to be reimbursed for POETs installed outside of the company’s POET installation program;
“Distributing nearly 500,000 gallons of bottled water; and
“Continuing to collect and analyze over 3,000 samples in various media as part of ongoing investigation and monitoring efforts.
“Saint-Gobain has received the final permit issued by DES and is currently reviewing the document.”
This is the first story in a series of articles that will be published on InDepthNH.org covering the ongoing PFAS contamination situation in southern New Hampshire and the long-term health impacts that locals are continuing to face, or have recently connected to their PFAS exposure. If you have relevant information or have been impacted by PFAS pollution in New Hampshire, please contact Ani Freedman at firstname.lastname@example.org.