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Water warriors: Merrimack moms unite over lack of action on PFOA contamination

Union Leader Correspondent

July 16. 2018 3:57PM
From left, Wendy Thomas, Nancy Murphy, Katharine Hodge and Laurene Allen, all active members of the Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water group, are demanding local, state and federal action to combat the ongoing Merrimack water contamination problem. These women water warriors are speaking out about their fears, health concerns and the futures of their children. (Kimberly Houghton /Union Leader correspondent)

Part 1 of a 2-part series

MERRIMACK — A group of water warriors has emerged in Merrimack, claiming not enough is being done to keep residents safe from contamination.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics says it is committed to being a good neighbor and is working with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to install municipal water extensions to the hundreds of properties with wells contaminated by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). But frustration continues among residents and the local moms who formed Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water.

Nancy Murphy, a local retired nurse with six children, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must start mandating PFOA and PFAS levels, arguing that the days of suggestions and advisories are over.

She said one of her sons has Graves’ disease, and one of her daughters has endocrine and gestational disorders.

“They can never figure out what the triggers are,” said Murphy, whose husband suffered with prostate cancer. “None of us can say the PFAS chemicals caused this, but we can’t say that it didn’t.”

And even though private wells near Saint-Gobain with contamination over 70 ppt are being offered public water extensions, Murphy compared it to switching seats on the Titanic, saying the Merrimack Village District’s (MVD) public water still has contaminants ranging up to 22 ppt of PFOA.

Saint-Gobain, with a local plant at 685 Daniel Webster Highway, has offered to treat two of MVD’s public wells that are currently offline because of high contamination.

Ron Miner, superintendent of MVD, said its engineers and consultants are working diligently to design and install treatment on the two wells currently out of service because of PFOA. The agreement between Saint-Gobain and MVD signed in March will allow MVD to have the treatment plant up and running in the spring of 2020, weather permitting, according to Miner.

“MVD has an engineering contract in place to develop a cost analysis for filtration of all wells should (maximum contaminant levels) be established for additional PFAS,” said Miner.

Health advisories

Katharine Hodge has lived in Merrimack since 2002, utilizing MVD’s public water.

Recently, within a span of one year, Hodge was diagnosed with cancer twice. She had surgery in October 2016 to remove a tumor on her kidney, and in September 2017 she had lymphoma surgery; her 13-year-old daughter has asthma and various hormonal issues.

“Clearly there is a problem when the health advisory for PFOA was once 400 ppt, was lowered to 100 and then lowered again to 70,” said Hodge. “And now I am scared and also relieved that a new science study is admitting there is a problem and possibly suggesting even lower (levels), but I worry that DES isn’t going to do anything about it.”

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released for public comment the draft study of PFOA and PFAS chemicals.

Even though public water systems and private drinking wells have been treated on a 2016 EPA recommendation that advised people not to drink water if it had more than 70 ppt of PFOA and PFOS chemicals, the new draft study suggests that the level should instead be 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA — the two common PFAS compounds, citing that the chemicals are linked to cancer, liver and thyroid damage and other health and fetal effects.

Action by DES

In the past two years, DES has taken nearly 3,000 drinking water samples from about 40 active investigation sites statewide.

“By far the largest and most complex is the one centered on Saint-Gobain,” said Clark Freise, assistant commissioner of DES. So far, about 500 homes with private wells have been hooked up to municipal water, and when all is done, about 750 homes will be connected in southern New Hampshire, he said.

He acknowledged that Saint-Gobain already paid to have 400 homes connected prior to having the consent decree in place, but did agree that there was a delay in the Merrimack response because of some disputed areas.

“This has really taxed our entire department ... It has been a huge effort for the state government to get to this point,” he said, adding the Department of Transportation, Attorney General’s office and Department of Public Health have all played large roles.

Freise said he understands the frustration from Merrimack residents and residents in nearby communities.

Town officials speak out

Finlay Rothhaus, chairman of the Merrimack Town Council, said he is concerned about the PFOA problem, and is anxious for the EPA to set a new standard.

“People are really emotional about it, rightfully so, and I understand that,” said Rothhaus. “I do share the concerns of people and I recognize it as a problem for us.”

He said that while there are pending lawsuits against Saint-Gobain for the New Hampshire contamination, the town council has not formally discussed the possibility of filing separate legal action against the facility.

“These things are so prevalent around the world. It is just one of those very difficult things to prove,” he said, adding the town does not have deep pockets like large companies such as Saint-Gobain. He said MVD would have more jurisdiction over a potential lawsuit since it is the water district’s public wells that have been affected.

Don Provencher is one of five commissioners with MVD. Speaking personally, and not for the entire MVD board, Provencher said there have been discussions with Underwood Engineers, the MVD’s water supply and treatment consultant, about the possibility of treating all of MVD’s public wells for PFAS.

Last month, commissioners authorized Underwood to commence a proposed feasibility study to evaluate PFAS treatment alternatives, including Granular Activated Carbon, Ion Exchange and Advanced Oxidation, or any combination thereof, to reduce PFAS at all of MVD’s wells.

He stressed that the commissioners and MVD are determined to get ahead of the changing regulations instead of waiting for EPA or DES mandates.

Freise said that Saint-Gobain is responsible for a site investigation plan, and the company is in the midst of piloting a treatment system for its air emissions at the Merrimack plant.

That pilot system will also determine whether next-generation compounds are exiting through the plant’s smokestacks, according to Freise.

“We are very watchful of what is going on with these next-generation compounds because we don’t want a new problem,” he said.

Coming Tuesday: More about the perfluorooctanoic acid investigation in southern New Hampshire.

Environment General News Merrimack

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