NHDES, Advocates Wait on Action From Saint-Gobain; New PFAS Superfund Ruling Leaves Questions for Cleanup

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Ani Freedman photo

Saint-Gobain sign in Merrimack


A new EPA classification of two PFAS chemicals as hazardous under the Superfund Law has also entered the conversation about the cleanup of the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics site in Merrimack, a manufacturing company notorious for widespread PFAS contamination of drinking water.

The law would authorize stricter federal-led accountability and cleanup measures for PFOA and PFOS chemicals, two of the toxic byproducts of Saint-Gobain’s production. But the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services revealed that this law change likely won’t impact the Saint-Gobain site.

 “It’s not changing state law, so it doesn’t immediately change our work with the company or our treatment of the site,” said Mike Wimsatt, Waste Management Division Director at NHDES.

Unlike other PFAS-contaminated sites in New Hampshire like the Coakley Landfill or the Pease Air Force Base, the Saint-Gobain facility is not a designated Superfund site, which are under EPA oversight. The Merrimack facility is instead solely regulated by NHDES.

On April 26, Laurene Allen, co-founder of the Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water and local advocate, sent a letter to DES Commissioner Robert Scott asking if the state would be holding Saint-Gobain to the Superfund law cleanup standards, also known as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

“Our concern is that a pattern has existed for eight years of Saint Gobain picking and choosing actions that undoubtedly are in their best interest but are never in the best interest of our community,” Allen wrote in her letter to NHDES Commissioner Scott.

She still has yet to receive a response.

The new designation of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as hazardous substances under the Superfund law enables the EPA to compel polluters to pay for or conduct investigations and cleanup in cases of significant contamination. It functions to pass the burden from taxpayers to responsible polluters while increasing accountability and transparency in cases of PFAS pollution.

“It’s a no-brainer that this site should be held to that standard,” Allen said over the phone.

Advocates like Allen are facing another battle: stalled progress on a remediation plan as the company prepares to shut down by the end of the year. She was hoping the Superfund classification would strengthen how the state enforces cleanup of the Saint-Gobain site.

Allen believes that Saint-Gobain is dragging their heels in fulfilling their end of the 2018 agreement they entered with the state after the PFAS contamination was found in 2016. Recently, it was revealed that Saint-Gobain had not complied with the state’s numerous requests for additional water sampling to test for PFAS chemicals.

Allen pointed out that Saint-Gobain has yet to finalize a Remedial Action Plan, which would detail the company’s plan for reducing the concentrations of contaminants in the soil and groundwater near the site, which NHDES confirmed.

Wimsatt explained that the process of finalizing a Remedial Action Plan, or RAP, requires Saint-Gobain to submit a proposed cleanup plan which NHDES then takes the time to comment on and either reject or accept. The state has yet to accept a plan submitted by Saint-Gobain since it initially submitted the first version in early 2023.

“We have not seen submittals that have satisfied us,” Wimsatt said.

Allen said Saint-Gobain’s proposed plans thus far have suggested Monitored Natural Attenuation, which the EPA states “relies on natural processes to decrease or ‘attenuate’ concentrations of contaminants in soil and groundwater.” For PFAS chemicals, however, this could potentially take centuries to occur, as the “forever chemicals” are known for how slowly they break down.

Wimsatt said that Saint-Gobain is not moving as fast as the state would like them to, but he acknowledged the complexities of putting together a remedy for this site in particular. There are six towns affected by the PFAS contamination, Wimsatt explained, meaning the cleanup effort would encompass both the site proper and all of the impacted towns whose drinking water was contaminated.

In response to questions about the delay in developing the RAP and a Groundwater Management Zone, which outlines the area of groundwater being managed to understand the release of contaminants from a site, a representative from Saint-Gobain issued the following response:

“There has been no delay. We have been working with NHDES throughout the process and these two items have progressed consistent with NHDES and our Consent Decree requirements. Groundwater Management Zones are typically established following investigation, and our investigation is ongoing. The RAP was submitted to NHDES last year. Based on the information provided in the RAP, NHDES requested additional analyses which led to submittal of a RAP Addendum in February. We are currently awaiting additional feedback on these submittals.”

Wimsatt said it is a concern that the process will continue to go back and forth between the state commenting on Saint-Gobain’s unsatisfactory proposed plans, but that there is enforcement protocol NHDES can put in place.

If a polluter like Saint-Gobain continues not to comply, Wimsatt said (without speaking directly about Saint-Gobain), then the state may pursue civil and criminal sanctions with the authority of the Attorney General. They can even go as far as to petition the court to order a party to do what is required of them under law pertaining to cleanup and remediation efforts, Wimsatt said.

Wimsatt assured that Saint-Gobain will remain responsible for the site cleanup and surrounding remediation efforts long after they leave. But while they may be on the hook for the 2018 consent decree with the state, another agreement entered by Saint-Gobain is expiring next year.

After the contaminated water supplies were discovered, Saint-Gobain entered a five-year contract with the Merrimack Village District Water Works (MVD), in which they were tasked with covering most of the cost of building and maintaining a new water treatment facility specifically for PFAS. The MVD serves over 7,500 service locations, more than 87% of Merrimack, according to their website.

Don Provencher, chairman of the MVD, said that the building cost $5 million to build—but Saint-Gobain only covered $3.3 million, as not all of the cost was designated to PFAS remediation. Provencher said that once the contract runs out in 2025, the town of Merrimack will have to assume the costs of running the facility. That comes out to about $100,000 per year, Provencher said.

When asked if NHDES would step in once the MVD contract ends to force Saint-Gobain to assume ongoing responsibility of running the treatment facility, Wimsatt responded, “NHDES cannot comment on any prospective regulatory action.”

State Representative and resident of Merrimack Wendy Thomas is concerned about Saint-Gobain leaving at the end of the year without certainty of their accountability. Both Thomas and Allen expressed frustration that community members and advocates do not have access to NHDES’ conversations with Saint-Gobain as their departure from New Hampshire draws near.

“I suspect they are going to leave a mess that we are going to have to clean up,” Thomas said.

Without a Remedial Action Plan in place yet, and with the looming deadline of Saint-Gobain’s contract with MVD, Thomas and Allen have both voiced concerns about Saint-Gobain’s methods in cleaning up the actual facility, which holds high concentrations of PFAS contaminants. Thomas worried about how the company was handling the chemicals—and if they were possibly spreading more PFAS contamination with inadequate transportation and disposal methods.

When asked about their cleanup process, a representative of Saint-Gobain responded:

“Facility decommissioning, waste handling, and material recycling is proceeding in accordance with applicable federal, state, and local requirements. All materials have been shipped offsite in appropriate containers, as applicable, with appropriate shipping and waste handling documents for transport only to licensed and permitted disposal or recycling locations for the given waste stream.”

Saint-Gobain confirmed that they will be departing from Merrimack, and North America, before the end of 2024. After which, they promised to “continue to work with NHDES to investigate and remediate the property, as needed, in accordance with applicable requirements.”

The Remedial Action Plan is yet to be finalized, but Wimsatt said the state should finish their latest round of comments in the coming weeks. Wimsatt is hopeful that once NHDES has finalized their review of the latest RAP, a public discussion might be held to update citizens about the status of cleanup. After the state returns their comments to Saint-Gobain, they will once again have to submit a plan for NHDES to review.

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