Coakley Landfill PFAS Contamination: Cleanup Slowly Progresses, Questions Remain

Print More

Mindi Messmer photo

Signs are posted in the areas near the Coakley Landfill Site warning of contamination.


As research opens the public eye to the numerous dangers of PFAS, or forever chemicals, pressure remains firmly on the Coakley Landfill Group, the EPA, and the state to remedy contamination from the long shut-down landfill in North Hampton and Rye.

Advocates and state representatives are questioning the urgency that the state, EPA, and Coakley Landfill Group have taken in cleaning up the site, going as far as to claim they’ve ignored the law passed in 2019 mandating certain remediation steps. Meanwhile, the bodies behind the cleanup are insisting they are doing everything they can.

The site has long been shut down, first sparking concern after volatile organic compound pollution was found in 1990, according to the EPA. But more red flags were raised after the emerging contaminants 1,4 dioxane and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were discovered in ground, surface, and drinking water around the site in 2016. Both are linked to cancer risk and other adverse health outcomes, according to the CDC. These chemicals remain at the heart of public concern for the areas near Coakley Landfill and for remediation efforts.

Mindi Messmer, an environmental scientist and former state Representative of Rye, has been outspoken in criticizing Coakley Landfill Group and the state in their slow progress to remediate the site.

“It’s a much more business-friendly environment than it is public health-centered or citizen-focused,” Messmer said in an interview in September 2023. “I think New Hampshire just has a history of that kind of practice.”

Rep. Chris Muns, D-Hampton, joined Messmer in his frustration, discussing the absence of a public plan to address the Coakley situation in an interview in September 2023. HB 494, passed in 2019, had mandated the Coakley Landfill Group, DES, and the EPA to solidify a remedy plan by November 1, 2019. At last, DES filed a report at the end of 2023, per the request of Muns.

On December 29, 2023, DES Commissioner Robert Scott sent a letter to House Speaker Sherman Packard and Senate President Jeb Bradley with an update on the Coakley Landfill.

The report included a history of the Coakley Landfill Site and an update on current investigations led by the EPA and the Coakley Landfill Group. The report, which consolidated the EPA’s fifth five-year review and the combined sampling and monitoring efforts of DES and Coakley Landfill Group, concluded that “Site remedies currently protect human health and the environment because remediation has addressed the contaminant source and institutional controls,” but further investigations, sampling, and analyzing need to be completed “to be protective over the long term.”

Messmer was less than satisfied with the report, to say the least.

She anticipated the letter having specific action steps to continue cleaning up the water around Coakley. “But there was nothing,” she said in a recent interview. Messmer felt particularly disappointed in the state’s lack of enforcement of HB 494, a bill she had helped write in 2018.

“I don’t see any appreciable action by the state,” Messmer said.

Another key component of regulating and remediating the site is implementing surface water quality standards for PFAS, Messmer said, which she was pushing for back in 2018. While there are drinking water standards for PFAS, the current state of pollution around Coakley Landfill involves surface water—and with no enforceable surface water quality standards, there is less accountability and clear direction for cleanup, Messmer said.

Ken Edwardson of the Watershed Management Bureau at the DES confirmed there are no state surface water quality standards—and DES won’t be implementing widespread standards anytime soon. There is, however, a plan in place to incorporate PFAS surface water quality standards specifically for water 20 miles upstream from surface water that is used for drinking, Edwardson said. The next step is to go before the Water Council in March with this proposed plan and move forward from their comments onto the formal state rule-making process. 

“The general notion is that people shouldn’t be discharging something into the water body that a short distance downstream some public water suppliers are going to have to take out,” Edwardson said. “That’s just not fair.” 

For now, the state is following the EPA’s guidance on recommended water quality for surface water.

Muns appreciated the state fulfilling his request but was left with more questions after reading the report.

“The thing that I’m still struggling with is there isn’t really a clear pathway of what happens next,” Muns said.

After PFAS chemicals were discovered around the landfill in 2016, and in several drinking water wells, which have since been treated, testing discovered that the soil mixture on top of the landfill cap contained PFAS which was running off into surrounding water from rain. The PFAS-containing cap still remains on top of the landfill, with no plans to replace it.

“Once we knew there was contaminants in the fill, why didn’t we remove and replace the fill?” Muns said, referring to the soil mixture on the landfill cap. Muns acknowledged it would likely be expensive, but still felt dumbfounded by this discovery.

Mike Wimsatt, Director of the Waste Management Division at DES, clarified that replacing the cap would be a fiscal and practical nightmare, even though there is a “meaningful portion of PFAS contamination emanating from the cap,” he said.

Wimsatt and Drew Hoffman of the DES Hazardous Waste Remediation Bureau explained that replacing the cap would risk damaging the plastic cover underneath the soil mixture, causing further contamination from a possibly exposed landfill. Not to mention trucking the materials in and out of a landfill that is dozens of acres in size. To replace the cap, Wimsatt said, they would need to determine it would be a “meaningful benefit and improvement” to the landfill and contamination remediation.

Generally, PFAS and 1,4 dioxane are chemicals that can take longer to remediate, Wimsatt served as an explanation for the slow progress. “We can expect to be dealing with them for quite some time,” Wimsatt said.

PFAS, which are used in various types of manufacturing, are considered forever chemicals because of their resilience in the environment and the human body. They take much longer to break down and bioaccumulate over time the more a person or ecosystem is exposed.

Still, Wimsatt felt there has been “outstanding progress” in the landfill cleanup.

Peter Britz, the Director of Planning and Sustainability for Portsmouth and a representative of the Coakley Landfill Group, said they’ve just begun new monitoring of the landfill groundwater and to measure stormwater runoff—a crucial step to understand where contamination is coming from, and what’s in the water.

“Understanding that is key to understanding what kind of treatment we would perform,” Britz said in an interview.

Once they know where PFAS contamination primarily comes from—groundwater or surface water—then the Coakley Landfill Group will have a more informed decision about the treatment system they implement, Britz explained.

Coakley Landfill is a Superfund Site, meaning its oversight is directed by the EPA, with Coakley Landfill Group acting as the responsible party in any remediation steps taken. The group doesn’t do anything without the direction of the EPA, Britz said.

While Messmer and Muns feel the progress at the landfill has been slow, Richard “Skip” Hull, EPA Remedial Project Manager at the site, said Coakley Landfill Group has complied with all of their requests—and within the timeline they’ve asked.

One of the primary steps the EPA has taken at the site is risk evaluation based on screening levels developed by the EPA, which are not enforceable, but used to “determine if a specific contaminant needs further investigation,” an email sent from the EPA read.

Hull said that contamination levels do “exceed screening levels at a number of locations,” including Berrys Brook and in areas mostly immediately adjacent to landfill.

But based on the risk evaluation, Hull said, “They’ve determined that there is not a risk that is above EPA’s risk level for surface water.”

“I’m not downplaying the level of contamination in the surface water,” Hull added. “There’s contamination in the water from the landfill, that’s undeniable. But our screening levels are very conservative.”

Britz’s observations were aligned with Hull’s conclusions as well. “No one is at risk in terms of drinking water from the Brook,” Britz said.

Berrys Brook and the other contaminated areas are not used as drinking water supply, but Britz said if the water was ingested, then that could potentially put them at risk—especially if they continually ingest the water for 45, or more extremely, 120 days throughout the year, which is the criteria for the EPA’s risk assessment.

“I think the way the site has been contained is at least preventing people from drinking that water, but in the long run I think we’ll have to keep looking at it,” Britz said.

Because of where the Coakley Landfill was excepting waste from in the 1980s, Wimsatt said it does contain more industrial and “dangerous” waste than the average municipal landfill.

Messmer is hopeful that the EPA’s anticipated decisions at the federal level could incite action at the Coakley Site.

Messmer said the EPA is currently considering imposing drinking water standards for PFAS and to classify PFAS as a hazardous waste under the Comprehensive Environmental Responsibility, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA.

If the EPA follows through on these classifications, specifically under RCRA, then New Hampshire would be forced to regulate PFAS at every step: from its generation, to its transportation, and finally to its treatment and disposal, according to the EPA website.

Other hazardous wastes regulated under RCRA include wastes from explosives manufacturing, iron and steel production, and secondary lead processing.

Britz from the Coakley Landfill Group said the group holds meetings on a monthly basis that are open to the public at the North Hampton Town Hall.

“I’m always willing to talk to people,” Britz said, acknowledging strong public opinion on the contamination situation. “We can’t satisfy everybody.”

Messmer is still waiting for more action at the landfill. She said she talks with people in Rye who are left wondering what’s going on, nearly eight years after PFAS and 1,4 dioxane were discovered there.

“I live around it, so I know people in my town who are still concerned,” Messmer said.

Ani Freedman is a contract reporter with She is a recent graduate from Columbia Journalism School with a passion for environmental, health, and accountability reporting. In her free time, she’s an avid runner and run coach. She can be reached at

Comments are closed.