Merrimack Protesters Demand More PFAS Contamination Response From Saint-Gobain

Oct 20, 2019

Update, 5 p.m. Monday: Saint-Gobain has agreed to pursue one of the protesters' main demands — saying it will work to set up a new community group for Merrimack residents to weigh in on hazardous waste cleanup at the factor.

In a letter to those protesters, the company says it often sets up what it calls community advisory groups with residents and government officials near its major facilities. Saint-Gobain says it'll reach out to the town of Merrimack to start the process. They say the group could be a forum to address protesters' other concerns.

Original story posted Sunday continues below.

Residents protested outside the Saint-Gobain plastics factory in Merrimack Sunday, calling for more response to PFAS chemical contamination in the area's drinking water.

In 2016, hundreds of Merrimack’s public and private wells were found to be contaminated with PFAS linked to air emissions from Saint-Gobain.

The company has worked with the state to get bottled water and public water service to affected residents. It's also funded monitoring programs and treatment for public water supplies.

But New Hampshire now has the strictest standards in the country for PFAS in public water – so the town's levels of PFAS are now considered to be too high.

Protesters line Route 3 across from Saint-Gobain in Merrimack.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

The chemicals have been linked to health problems, which worries public water customers like local parent Kari Nguyen. Her family doesn't drink the town's tap water, but they do use it in cooking and bathing.

"Whatever they're doing over there across the street, they need to clean up their act,” Nguyen said as she joined dozens of protesters on the other side of Route 3 from Saint-Gobain. “They need to be held responsible, and we need to get our water drinkable again."

The protesters planned to deliver a letter to Saint-Gobain Sunday, calling for the creation of a new community group to negotiate directly with the factory on next steps - similar to one associated with a Saint-Gobain-centric Superfund site in Hoosick Falls, New York.

They also want bottled water service and private well testing town-wide, and the creation of a recycling program for bottled water recipients.

"We are sick and tired, literally sick and tired, of poison being in our water,” said Wendy Thomas, a local state representative who organized Sunday’s protest. “People are starting to be angry, and when people are angry, that’s when you see change.”

Saint-Gobain representatives declined to receive protesters’ letter in person Sunday, asking that it be emailed instead. Spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff said later that day that the company had not yet received the letter and so couldn’t comment on it.

“[W]e have been working very closely and cooperatively with the state and are fully committed to doing what is needed to remain compliant in the face of rapidly changing regulations,” Pokedoff said in an email.

Some PFAS chemicals have been phased out of use in American manufacturing - but the entire class of compounds numbers in the thousands. Saint-Gobain says it's eliminated one contaminant, PFOA, from its processes. Pokedoff declined to specify what other types of similar chemicals the factory may still use. 

Protesters waved as passing cars honked in support of their cause outside Saint-Gobain in Merrimack.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

An open letter from Saint-Gobain CEO Thomas Kinisky, addressed to “the community” and shared by Pokedoff, said "a lot of misinformation" had recently been spread.

“There is still work to do and we are committed to seeing it through while continuing to take a leadership role,” Kinisky's letter says. “We appreciate the patience of the communities and the commitment of the many partners that are helping us.”

After recent test results showed high levels of PFAS have persisted in a monitoring well close to the factory, the town of Merrimack called on the state to temporarily shut down the facility.

The state responded that it does not believe it has legal grounds to do so.

But changes may still be in the works at Saint-Gobain. Regulators will hold a public hearing in November about upcoming revisions to the facility's air emissions permit. 

There are no enforceable federal limits on PFAS chemicals. New Hampshire now has its own enforceable limits for PFAS in groundwater and public drinking water, but not in air emissions, soil or surface water.

The state’s latest PFAS standards are being challenged in court by PFAS-maker 3M and some local stakeholders. 3M has historically supplied PFAS to companies like Saint-Gobain.

New Hampshire is also suing 3M, DuPont and several other companies for allegedly causing the state’s widespread PFAS contamination.