Near Saint-Gobain's New Hampshire Plant, PFOA Contamination Is A Major Concern

Apr 21, 2016

Southern Vermont has been dealing with water contamination from the chemical PFOA, but it's becoming clear the issue is more widespread. The suspected carcinogen has not only been found in drinking water in Pownal and Bennington, but also in New York and New Hampshire.

At the center of the state's PFOA problem is the Saint-Gobain plant in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Saint-Gobain also owned the Chemfab plant in Bennington, the suspected source of that area's PFOA contamination.

New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Emily Corwin has been covering the water contamination in New Hampshire. Corwin spoke with VPR about the situation in the Granite State.

On the scope of the PFOA contamination in New Hampshire and Saint-Gobain's response:

"The state has identified the contaminant in high concentrations surrounding the Saint-Gobain plant [in Merrimack]," Corwin says. "They're just beginning to test beyond the 1-mile radius. We will be hearing back soon about the 1.5 mile radius. So the scope is very limited right now, but what they're doing is just following their test results. If they continue to get water concentrations over 100 parts per trillion, they will continue to test further and further out until they go below that threshold."

Corwin says so far, between 100 and 200 wells have been affected, but the number continues to rise.

"Anyone in the 1-mile radius is getting bottled water right now," says Corwin. "[And] anyone with a well over 100 parts per trillion is getting bottled water right now."

"The state has identified the contaminant in high concentrations surrounding the Saint-Gobain plant [in Merrimack] ... They're just beginning to test beyond the one-mile radius." — Emily Corwin, NHPR reporter

Corwin says that like in Vermont, Saint-Gobain is "footing the bill for the bottled water" for the area.

"They are still distributing from a single place people have to drive to, but they say in the next couple weeks it will be a distribution process. So they'll be sending trucks out," Corwin said.

Saint-Gobain is also offering to pay for filtration systems for any home found to be over the 100 parts per trillion threshold.

"But the state says that they're still negotiating that," Corwin adds. "They are wanting people to wait before they engage in that sort of negotiation with Saint-Gobain on an individual level because they're interested in possible infrastructural solutions that might be, for example, putting more well houses onto public water."

On what amount of PFOA is considered safe in New Hampshire:

As Corwin explains, "parts per trillion is the concentration of the contaminant in the water."

New England lawmakers are urging the federal Environmental Protection Agency to update its health advisory level for PFOA. The feds say it's safe to have up to 400 parts per trillion in drinking water. In New Hampshire, the state level is 100 parts per trillion, and in Vermont, it's only 20.

The Merrimack Village district public water system has tested "at around 35 parts per trillion," and state officials are still trying to decide what is an appropriate response, according to Corwin.

"We in New Hampshire are all looking over it at Vermont and saying, 'Twenty parts per trillion, what does this mean for us right now?'" — Emily Corwin, NHPR reporter

"We in New Hampshire are all looking over it at Vermont and saying, 'Twenty parts per trillion, what does this mean for us right now?'" says Corwin. "I think a lot of people here are looking at Vermont's number and it's making them nervous about the fact that in New Hampshire, you are only getting bottled water if you're in that 1-mile radius or you have over 100 parts per trillion."

"Especially with the public water," Corwin adds, "It's interesting to think about the fact that if the Merrimack Village district were in Vermont, their public water would be absolutely offline."

On other chemicals of concern that could be found in water supplies:

Corwin says that the scientists she's spoken with have referred to the problem as "Whack-A-Mole."

"One scientist I was talking to was saying this is about how we regulate chemicals," Corwin says. "This country's Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976 and hasn't been updated. People need to know what's in their water and they need to rally he says. Get their legislators on board with chemical reform."