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How the EPA’s new proposed rule for PFAS chemicals could help with cleanup in N.H.

Pease Air National Guard tower
Dan Tuohy

State regulators say a move by the Environmental Protection Agency to designate two PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances” could strengthen efforts to clean up contaminated sites in New Hampshire.

PFAS– a group of widely used man-made chemicals found in waterproof fabrics, food containers, and firefighting foam — have contaminated water in communities across the state. There’s evidence that exposure to the so-called “forever chemicals” can lead to negative health effects, like kidney cancer and abnormally high cholesterol.

The EPA is proposing a hazardous substance designation for PFOA and PFOS under its “Superfund” program, which allows the federal government to clean up contaminated sites by requiring the parties responsible for the contamination to pay for the costs.

“A hazardous substance designation gives us the ability to get some polluter accountability,” said Laurene Allen, who founded the advocacy group Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water after her community’s water was contaminated with PFAS from the Saint-Gobain manufacturing facility.

Mike Wimsatt, who heads the waste management division at New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services, said that would be especially helpful in PFAS cleanup efforts for sites that are already listed as federal priorities, like the former Pease Air Force Base and the Coakley Landfill.

“To the extent there were any difficulties in ensuring that work gets done and the cleanup gets done at those sites, I think this will help to really reduce those concerns,” he said.

For other sites that are managed by the state instead of the Superfund program, like the area of PFAS contamination caused by Saint-Gobain, a hazardous substance designation could give New Hampshire more leverage when dealing with parties responsible for pollution, Wimsatt said.

“If a party is not cooperating and not doing what it's required to do under state law authority, there would probably be a perception now that they're at a greater risk of being potentially identified as a Superfund site,” he said.

It may also encourage companies that handle waste containing PFAS to take the disposal process more seriously to ensure the chemicals don’t enter the environment, Wimsatt said.

According to the EPA, there will be a 60 day public comment period after they publish a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The agency says they will also take public comments in the future about designating PFAS chemicals besides PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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