MERRIMACK — Now that New Hampshire has some of the most stringent standards for PFOA contamination in the nation, the price tag for municipalities and other entities to come into compliance could hover around $190 million.
Officials agree that the cost will be high, yet it is still unclear how water cleanup will be paid for or how long it might take.
It has been three years since PFOA contamination was first discovered at high levels in the Merrimack region near Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. That was the start of a major remediation effort that led to a recent vote by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules to implement new PFAS standards.
Rick Sawyer, town manager in Bedford, said the new 12 parts per trillion standard for PFOA is down from the previously proposed number of 38 ppt, and down even more from the state’s earlier guideline of 70 ppt. A 400 ppt federal suggestion was used when the issue surfaced three years ago.
“These new standards are much lower than anything we have ever seen or really even talked about in the past,” said Sawyer. “You can see how far down the standard has gone — 12 ppt is really 12 grains of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool.”
Sawyer said the statewide cleanup could cost up to $190 million for water systems, but that number could be potentially more if communities have landfills that are polluting nearby wells.
“There has been no proposed funding as part of these rules,” said Sawyer, who called it a serious concern for the New Hampshire Municipal Association. “There is no funding, currently, for testing or for solutions or implementing water systems or treatment systems.”
While many are praising the new guidelines, the final cost for municipal water companies, wastewater treatment plants and landfills throughout New Hampshire is a serious concern.
“We are very fortunate that rule-making was approved. We now have some of the strictest PFAS MCL’s (maximum contaminant level) in the nation — far stricter than our federal guidelines,” said Rep. Nancy Murphy of Merrimack, who has urged the water cleanup in town.
She acknowledged that the Merrimack Village District (MVD), the public water company that provides water to about 25,000 customers in the area, is above some of the new limits at various times. MVD will spend $14.5 million to filter four public wells, which includes not only the PFOA cleanup, but also the treatment of iron and manganese.
That $14.5 million includes $3.6 million to design and construct a water treatment system for public wells seven and eight, and $10.9 million to treat public wells two and three. All four wells have the presence of PFOA, ranging from 7 parts per trillion to about 28 ppt.; the new PFAS rules for the state include 12 ppt for PFOA, 15 ppt for PFOS, 18 ppt for PFHxS and 11 ppt for PFNA.
Other significant water improvements will also be taking place in Merrimack, including a new, $4.5 million iron and manganese treatment plant that has been part of the MVD Capital Improvement Plan for several years, and a $1.3 million booster station on Turkey Hill Road that was approved by voters last year.
Sawyer said the water readings from MVD, which service Bedford’s Greenfield Farms and Cabot Preserve, are sometimes above the new 12 ppt PFOA limit.
In addition, there are monitoring wells at Bedford’s landfill that have detected PFOA over 70 ppt, and residents near the site have wells with PFOA limits in the teens and up to 40 ppt that will need to be addressed by the town. Those cleanup costs are still undetermined, he said.
Although the state has sued some of the major manufacturers of these chemicals, Sawyer said it could take years for that to be litigated. Even if a fund were created from that lawsuit to help with cleanup costs, that is years down the road, he said.
Denise Ricciardi, a Bedford town councilor, recently traveled to the nation’s capital and met with a representative from the Environmental Protection Agency during her visit. Ricciardi said the EPA is working to potentially establish state revolving funds to assist states like New Hampshire with their PFOA remediation efforts.
“This is our generation’s Agent Orange or DDT or asbestos. Unfortunately, we have done this to ourselves and these are the chemicals we created. Again, we are learning the hard way one more time,” said Sawyer.
She noted: “We didn’t create this. We are victims of this and we are victims that are paying to fix this, which we should not be. However, without regulations, we couldn’t do anything about that — our hands were tied. So we have that now ... We need our towns, we need our state to sue those responsible and pay for the damage that they caused, the harm that they caused so we don’t have to continue footing the bill for their business practices.”
Peter Albert, Merrimack town councilor, said he is pleased with the progress his community has made.
Still, he worries about the financial impact on the town and its wastewater treatment plant. While the town voted on bonds for the next 12 years to upgrade that system, he is concerned it may need even more filtrations in the future because of the new regulations. He questioned who should contribute to that cost.
“There are so many questions about this,” said Albert, adding Merrimack needs to get a better understanding on what the ultimate cost will be for cleanup.
Other communities in the state are also raising concerns about PFOA, including the town of Lebanon. Town officials there are considering a lawsuit over how the new standards were implemented, and are searching for other municipalities that may want to join in the litigation.
In Bedford, Merrimack and Litchfield — where municipal water lines were installed throughout the past two years to provide clean water to residents with contaminated, private wells — the remediation efforts may just be starting, said officials.
“We thought we might be getting beyond this when we got the water lines done, but really we are starting up all over again and maybe more intently and more widespread in the community,” Sawyer said.
The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services announced last week that it will be sampling 500 randomly selected private wells, evenly distributed throughout the state, to test for more than 250 chemicals.
The sampling, according to a statement from the agency, is being paid for through a grant from the Drinking Water and Groundwater Trust Fund. DES said earlier that it is hoping to use various grants to assist communities with their efforts to reduce the amount of contamination in their water.