As PFAS Plans Progress, Merrimack Residents Spar With State Regulators

Oct 11, 2018

Merrimack-area residents listen as regulators give an update on PFAS pollution investigations around the Saint Gobain factory.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Some southern New Hampshire residents are furious the state isn’t acting more quickly to control PFAS chemical pollution. They heard the latest from regulators Wednesday night at a public meeting in Merrimack.

Two years after Merrimack’s Saint Gobain factory disclosed major PFAS air emissions, residents still feel the plant poses an immediate threat.

Regulators say it is still emitting low levels of PFAS, which have been linked to serious health effects, including cancer.

They gave detailed updates Wednesday on ongoing investigations and new regulatory approaches to those emissions and other water contamination around the plant.

Residents say they’re still waiting for lower limits on PFAS in water and for more access to blood testing for locals whose wells were contaminated.

Now, they want the state to file suit and shut the factory down.

“We are constantly being reassured by you, but the reality is you have no clue what we are dealing with,” said Merrimack resident Kristen Ayers during a question-and-answer session with regulators. “So why are we not taking more serious precautions with our health?”

Clark Freise, assistant commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, says his agency doesn’t have the authority to close Saint Gobain, since he says they’re not actively breaking existing laws, and a court order now governs the response to the factory’s past pollution.

"If you want us to be authorized and allowed to do more, speak to your legislators and give us more authority, more budget, more people,” Freise said, as some audience members scoffed audibly. “We care about public health, whether people believe it or not.”

Freise and other officials insist the state is working “feverishly” on setting new, potentially lower limits for PFAS, due out in January. Next week, they'll hold technical work sessions on those limits that the public is encouraged to attend. [View data, slides from Oct. 10 Merrimack session here.]

And he says they’re using all available technology to study potential risks from a new class of similar chemicals called GenX, also in use at Saint Gobain.

As all that research continues, developers are asked not to remove any soil from the state’s groundwater management zone around the factory. That zone may expand if regulators find widespread contamination that can be clearly linked to Saint Gobain.

The groundwater contamination investigation around the factory is the largest in state history. And Freise says it’s only a piece of the growing PFAS crisis in New Hampshire and beyond.

“We are sampling throughout the state, and unfortunately, we are finding these compounds throughout the state,” he says.

Freise also says Saint Gobain’s contractors, under state oversight, are moving slower than he’d hoped on connecting residents with tainted wells to public water. That project is set to last through next spring.