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With new EPA guideline, Brockovich says PFOA is widespread

Sunday News Correspondent

May 28. 2016 7:30PM
Erin Brockovich answers questions about the water contamination problem facing New Hampshire, how federal officials can help and what she is doing to educate the public. (Courtesy)

MERRIMACK — One week after federal officials announced a new, lifetime health advisory for the contaminant recently detected in some water sources throughout southern New Hampshire, environmental activist Erin Brockovich says there is now a widespread outbreak of perfluorooctanoic acid.

“This is really the tip of the iceberg,” Brockovich told the New Hampshire Sunday News. “We really have a task at hand.”

There are more than 250 properties in Merrimack, Litchfield, Bedford and Amherst that are receiving bottled water because their private wells are contaminated with elevated levels of PFOA, a chemical one used to make Teflon that has since been linked to certain cancers and illnesses.

Brockovich, and her fight with polluters, was made famous when she was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 film that bears her name. Roberts won an Academy Award for the box-office success.

Last week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and its general manager at the Merrimack facility on behalf of residents with contaminated wells near the Merrimack plant.

The lawsuit was filed by the law firms of Gottesman and Hollis of Nashua, along with Hannon Law Firm of Denver, Colo. The firms are not associated with Brockovitch.

The plaintiffs in the suits are seeking damages for the trespass, nuisance, loss of enjoyment and property damages in connection with water contamination allegedly caused by the Saint-Gobain site at 701 Daniel Webster Highway.

Brockovich is now investigating the contamination crisis in southern New Hampshire, and is planning an upcoming town hall meeting to gather information on the problem and hear from residents that are impacted.

The New Hampshire Sunday News spoke with Brockovich about the water crisis in southern New Hampshire, her involvement and her future projects. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Question: What are your thoughts on the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 ppt for PFOA?

Answer: It was a big reduction, and for me, that says a lot. We are seeing health problems and water contamination in eight cities in Alabama and others in West Virginia, New York, New Hampshire and New Jersey. I really think that the reduction has created a wake-up call for many, and it has created a condition that PFOAs are now much more widespread than imagined.

Q: Have you spoken with any officials in Merrimack, Amherst, Litchfield or Bedford about the water contamination in southern New Hampshire?

A: We hope to do that. Weitz & Luxenberg, our law firm consultant, is aware, and this is a big initiative. We always welcome speaking with them. I get concerned with the number of communities in New Hampshire reporting water contamination. That is a lot of cities in a small state. We are here to create awareness, work with the media and other officials.

Q: What is your general reaction to the contamination being discovered in some local water sources in NH and around the country?

A: When I began this effort years ago, I thought it was an isolated situation. We have clearly learned there are certain chemicals out there. I was a little taken back when I started getting emails from several (New Hampshire) towns impacted and reporting the problem, and we need to pay attention to this. With PFOA, you can see a widespread outbreak.

Q: Not only are some private wells contaminated, but the Merrimack Village District, which provides drinking water to 25,000 people, also has PFOA at 90 ppt within one of its wells. What is your response to this problem?

A: My concern becomes the advisory level, which was obviously too high previously. Now that it is lower, it is a double-edge sword because all of these municipalities are now in exceedance of 70 ppt. Now the homework must begin to find out how long this (contaminant) has been in the system unbeknownst. So many people are on well water in New Hampshire, and this is a system that is off the grid and no one knows what is popping up. We are here to work with the municipalities. The overall mission is to fix this, whether it is well water or public water, we need to make sure that people are delivered safe water. The municipal systems are going to have to pay attention and follow this new guidance level.

Q: How can you or the law firm help southern New Hampshire, and would you consider organizing any type of lawsuit regarding the water contamination problem?

A: We did file a class-action lawsuit in Hoosick Falls, NY. Merrimack is looking for a venue, and we are trying to get that secured for a town hall meeting in about two weeks. That is where we can begin to learn from these communities what has happened to them, and our investigation will kick off then. We are here to help and protect them. I know the municipalities want to do the right thing. We all realize something we have taken for granted, and that is our water source. The legal recourse is there for them.

Q: What is being done correctly in New Hampshire to address this issue, and what, in your opinion, is not being done to fix the problem?

A: I think that has yet to be seen. With the new guidance level there will be more municipalities not expecting this and they will need guidance. PFOAs can be very persistent in the environment, and now I would anticipate that we would see more health and political involvement. Now there is a new health guidance set, and that is an enormous game changer. I do have every bit of assurance that state officials and politicians will see the magnitude of the issue and will work to fix this.

Q: Are New Hampshire residents reaching out to you about this situation, and if so, what are they concerned about?

A: Absolutely. They are concerned about health issues. When the new EPA level came out, I thought my computer was going to crash. I had so many emails from New Hampshire residents.

Q: Do you think bottled water should be offered to every resident and every property within the communities that have identified water contamination problems in New Hampshire?

A: That could be too early to determine. In West Virginia, they brought in tanker trucks, depending on what their level was. We have seen well levels (with PFOA) in the thousands, and those people clearly should not be using their water. It can create a lot of panic amongst people, and it is an alarm -- and one that we should take seriously and alert to all those on well water to have it tested in order to safeguard their health.

Q: Why are you so passionate about this issue, and why are you involved in the New Hampshire problem?

A: I have been to New Hampshire a few times, and it is such a beautiful state. I appreciate all of the value of water, and it is just the right thing to do. I get frustrated with the magnitude of the issue and I really think it needs to stop. It hurts me when people continue to email me years later and have suffered and are sick and have (PFOA) in their blood. It makes me sad. This is my calling.

Q: What should the EPA and other federal officials be doing to help correct some of this widespread water contamination in New Hampshire and throughout the nation?

A: They have a task at hand. I don’t just want to keep beating up on them. The system has to be corrected. EPA is overburdened and they are understaffed. Water infrastructure and pollution issues should be a priority for all of us. We need to find a way to work with them and give them the resources they need to do their job and deal with the massive issue at hand. I have been very disappointed. I don’t know where the crack in the system is or the failure in the system, but it exists and we need to stop ignoring it.

Q: What are some of the future projects that you are working on?

A: We are definitely working on lead issues throughout the United States, and chloramine issues have been a monster task. And, PFOA is obviously a big problem. I am getting ready to write my fourth book on where we stand in the environment. Right now, my focus has been the water situation in the country.

Environment Health Litchfield Merrimack