N.H. DES Says New PFAS Standards Could Cost Millions; Advocates Want Stricter Limits

Jan 4, 2019

Credit NHPR

The state’s public water systems might have to pay millions of dollars to comply with new proposed limits on certain industrial chemicals in drinking water – even as advocates say the proposals aren’t strict enough.

The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services released new details Friday on proposed standards for four likely harmful PFAS chemicals – known as PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS and PFNA.

Their report cites around 200 academic studies and federal reports in its methodology.

Regulators looked at the lowest level of the chemicals in water that studies show could cause certain non-cancer health problems – specifically, altered liver size and function, developmental delays and impaired reproduction. They used that data to devise what they say are “health-protective levels” based in part on the typical water intake of sensitive populations.

DES says it focused on non-cancer risks because its research suggested that focusing on cancer would have resulted in overly lenient standards. And it says it believes the proposed limits are as strict as they need to be.

“[A]djustments to the standards based on detection/treatment technology or projected compliance costs are not warranted, as both technology challenges and compliance costs can be addressed by means other than standards that do not adequately protect health,” the report says.

"We're going to definitely push back," says former Rep. Mindi Messmer.

The resulting standards: 70 parts per trillion for PFOS or for PFOA and PFOS combined; 38 ppt for PFOS alone; 85 ppt for PFHxS; and 23 ppt for PFNA.

The agency says it would likely cost public water systems between $2.2 million and $8 million up front to sample for PFAS and install treatment systems for those new standards.  

The state has said it has grants available to cover potential treatment costs. But advocates and some lawmakers argue the companies that originally manufactured and used PFAS should pay for treatment.

Some of those advocates also want the state to impose lower limits on PFAS in drinking water.

The state’s proposals are the same or lower than the state’s existing groundwater cleanup standard – which would remain at 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS combined. The new limits would not be nearly as strict as what the Centers for Disease Control says may be necessary to fully protect human health.

“I think (DES) factored in a lot of the concerns of the industry and people that were worried about having increased costs associated with treating the water, rather than really looking at the true costs of these public health impacts,” says Mindi Messmer, an environmental consultant and former state legislator.

The state did take comments about the proposals from the chemical and manufacturing industries as well as towns and residents.

But it suggests in its report that it didn’t have the time or resources, under a tight legislative deadline, to fully study what people would be willing to pay to avoid potential health risks – or what stricter limits could save the state in health care costs.

The proposed limits will have to face public input and legislative review before they’re finalized.

“We’re going to definitely push back,” says Messmer.

The DES report notes that only a handful of the state's water systems contain elevated levels of PFAS, while as many as a third contain at least trace amounts. Those trace amounts are likely lower than even the CDC’s advice and below current state cleanup standards.

Under those standards, the state is already working with industry, towns and the military to study and remediate two major PFAS pollution sites – around the Saint Gobain plastics factory in Merrimack, and at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth.