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More NH water systems need to treat for PFAS chemicals under new federal rules

Lawmakers, advocates, and local residents gathered to celebrate Saint-Gobain's announcement that it will close it's Merrimack facility.
Mara Hoplamazian / NHPR
Lawmakers, advocates, and local residents gathered to celebrate Saint-Gobain's announcement that it will close its Merrimack facility, which has been connected to PFAS contamination in the area.

Advocates in New Hampshire are celebrating new federal regulations to limit PFAS chemicals in drinking water, after years of fighting for stronger protections for communities that have suffered from contaminated water.

That group of man-made chemicals have been used for decades in consumer products — especially those that are waterproof, stain resistant, or non-stick. They’re often called “forever chemicals,” because they persist and accumulate in the environment and in peoples’ bodies.

Studies show most people in the U.S. have some PFAS in their blood, and long-term exposure can cause cancer or other negative health effects.

New Hampshire was the first state to require local water systems, landfills, and wastewater plants to test for PFAS and treat water that had been contaminated on a regular basis. In 2019, the state adopted the strictest standards in the U.S. at the time.

But the federal regulations announced Wednesday limit certain kinds of PFAS to lower levels than New Hampshire does currently — limiting two main PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to 4 parts per trillion, others to 10 parts per trillion, and implementing limits on mixtures of certain PFAS.

“This certainly isn't the end of the road; there's a lot more work to be done, but this is a humongous step in the right direction and one that will benefit so many people,” said Andrea Amico, a longtime advocate who started the group Testing for Pease after her family was exposed to PFAS on the former Pease Air Force Base on the Seacoast.

Next month, Amico said, it will have been a decade since she first learned about the contamination.

“I was shocked 10 years ago when I first learned about PFAS contamination in our public drinking water and couldn't understand how these chemicals weren't regulated, how there were no laws to protect people from drinking this,” she said. “Ten years is a long time. But I'm just really grateful that we're at this point and that this is a huge milestone that we can continue to build off of.”

Implementing new standards

Under the new federal rules, regulated water systems will have three years to monitor for chemicals and five years to treat the water to reduce levels. That treatment could include installing technologies like granular activated carbon or reverse osmosis in contaminated water systems, or shutting down contaminated wells and finding uncontaminated sources of water.

The EPA says $9 billion will be available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fund PFAS remediation and another $12 billion is available for general drinking water improvements that could include PFAS.

In New Hampshire, state officials said the new regulations could double the number of water systems and private wells in New Hampshire that exceed legal standards.

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New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Bob Scott said the state anticipated the new federal standards — but, he said, there could be barriers to implementing them.

“We expect that these lower federal drinking water standards will result in more water systems and private well owners needing financial assistance to be in compliance, which will require a greater commitment on behalf of the federal government than the funding mentioned in their announcement,” he said in a written statement.

State officials said addressing PFAS contamination in New Hampshire has already cost more than $300 million, a cost they say has fallen on state and local governments. In the statement from the Department of Environmental Services, officials said the cost of complying with the new regulations would be more than what state and federal assistance could cover.

In their fact sheet on the new rules, the EPA said the benefits of addressing PFAS exposure would justify the costs.

“Fewer people will get cancer or liver disease, pregnant women will have reduced risks, and more and children and infants will be stronger and grow healthier,” the agency said.

Federal officials estimated that compliance with the new rules would cost $1.5 billion per year nationally — a cost they said was equal to the avoided expenses of medical bills, income lost to illness and death.

For communities whose PFAS contamination comes from a specific source — like the Department of Defense, at the former Pease Air Force Base — the party that created the contamination should be responsible for the cost of cleaning it up, said Amico with Testing for Pease.

New Hampshire lawmakers have tried to implement other measures to limit the amount of PFAS residents are exposed to, including an effort this year to place restrictions on products with intentionally added PFAS, and another to require notice of PFAS contamination prior to selling property.

Laurene Allen, a co-founder of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, said the news of federal regulations was welcome. She's hoping New Hampshire’s timeline for implementing them will be faster than other parts of the country.

“I’m really relieved and happy. And I also strongly urge the state of New Hampshire to adopt these standards as soon as possible, not to wait for the full phase in period, because we don’t need to. We are ahead of the nation, we have done the testing,” she said. “We can lead the nation. We can do right by the people of New Hampshire.”

She said the town of Merrimack’s success in addressing PFAS contamination in public water and minimizing local financial impacts shows that it is realistic and attainable to remediate on a larger scale.

“Lives are at stake here,” she said. “That's what we have to remember.”

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