N.H.'s Pending PFAS Rules Spark Budget Fears For Local Water Systems

Jul 16, 2019

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Some local officials are worried the state is moving too fast on new regulations to limit PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

New Hampshire environmental regulators recently proposed strict limits on four types of PFAS – far stricter than Environmental Protection Agency recommendations, but closer to advice from the Centers for Disease Control.

The rules would require towns and other local facilities to test regularly for PFAS and remove it from public water supplies where it’s found above those low levels.

The state Department of Environmental Services says it has confidence in research that says these limits are needed to protect public health from the likely harmful chemicals.

They were used for decades in products like Teflon, Goretex and the firefighting foams used at military and civilian airports nationwide. PFAS persist in nature and build up in the human body. Studies have linked PFAS exposure to kidney and liver problems, high cholesterol, immune system and reproductive issues, developmental delays and potentially even some cancers.

The Department of Environmental Services says the regulations would only carry PFAS testing costs in their first year. The rules would kick in this October if approved by a legislative committee Thursday.

"It's not that municipalities don't want to comply... but we can't ignore the costs associated with it." --Margaret Byrnes, NH Municipal Association

After that, state regulators say potential treatment systems could cost local water systems as much as $190 million total.

Public health advocates, like Testing for Pease co-founder Andrea Amico, say it’s a worthwhile cost to prevent potential future health effects from PFAS exposure.

“The argument that it’s going to cost a lot to treat these contaminants or to remove them from the drinking water is pretty short-sighted because, in the end, I think it costs us a lot more to not do anything,” Amico said in a recent interview with NHPR and NPR.

Amico’s children and husband were exposed to high levels of PFAS in drinking water at Pease International Tradeport years ago.

“Every time my kids get sick with something little or weird, my head always goes to the worst place,” she says. “You know, ‘Oh my god, something’s really wrong with them. Like, maybe this is it.’ ”

But other stakeholders say that whatever the benefits of the new regulations, they shouldn’t kick in until the state should offers more financial support to go along. Margaret Byrnes is executive director of the state municipal association.

"It's not that municipalities don't want to comply – they'd be happy to comply with (a PFAS limit of) zero, if that's what the science bore out as a positive result,” Byrnes said on NHPR’s The Exchange Tuesday. “But we can't ignore the costs associated with it."

The Municipal Association’s government finance advisor, Barbara Reid, suggested in a recent interview that New Hampshire is positioning itself unwisely on the “bleeding edge” of the nation’s growing PFAS issue rather than the “cutting edge.”

"[Towns] have to do whatever it takes to provide clean, safe drinking water." -Clark Freise, NHDES

Other states that recently proposed similarly low PFAS standards, such as New York and Michigan, offered millions in additional funding to help affected water systems comply.

As of now, New Hampshire towns will have to rely primarily on existing state loan and grant programs to fund any PFAS response. An additional $6 million for the issue was part of the recently vetoed state budget.

Clark Freise, the assistant commissioner at the Department of Environmental Services, recognizes that the new PFAS rules will stretch budgets especially for small water systems. He says the department won’t rush towns into treatment systems, and will do what it can to provide technical support. But, he says:

“They have to do whatever it takes to provide clean, safe drinking water,” he says. “As we learn more from science and medical studies as to what that means, there are impacts that come around every year.”

Still, the Municipal Association and others fear this lack of additional money may lead to water rate or property tax hikes in affected towns.

Freise says the state has talked to around 10 water systems, including in Merrimack, where existing PFAS levels are sufficient to require treatment under the new laws.

He says the Department of Environmental Services hopes to work with legislators next year on finding options for extra related funding.