Six years ago, PFAS were discovered to have contaminated drinking water in the areas surrounding the Saint-Gobain facility in Merrimack. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Lawmakers are calling on the Department of Environmental Services to shut down Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack after a September test conducted by the state showed the company is still emitting toxic PFAS chemicals into the air.
The Department of Environmental Services found several deficiencies at the facility, most stemming from an unauthorized bypass stack that Saint-Gobain built without the state’s permission. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances went into the air untreated, passing through the bypass stack, according to DES.
This is the latest in a six-year saga since PFAS were discovered to have contaminated drinking water in the areas surrounding the Saint-Gobain facility. In 2019, the company applied for a permit with DES to install air pollution controls, as required by law. A permit was first issued in February 2020, and in June 2021 Saint-Gobain requested an extension of the permit through August 2022. As a part of this permitting process, the state conducted performance tests on the facility, which began on Sept. 7.
During those tests, the state found there were “uncontrolled emissions from the bypass stack as a result of the inadvertent shutdown of (treatment equipment),” according to a Nov. 18 letter from Sheri Eldridge, an administrator in the DES air resources division, to Gabriel Caridad, plant manager of the Merrimack Saint-Gobain facility.
Some local elected representatives said during a press conference on Monday that trust with the corporation has been eroded beyond repair. Some, including Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, and former Merrimack representative Nancy Murphy, criticized the DES for failing to protect New Hampshire residents from the harmful chemicals.
“Allowing the contamination of our air, land, and water to continue for nearly six years that we’ve known of is unacceptable,” Rung said.
And Mindi Messmer, an environmental scientist and former state representative, took the department to task for what she called “a consistent pattern of the agencies enabling this polluter to continue to poison the people of Southern New Hampshire. DES should immediately shut down operations at the plant and fine them heavily.”
In an interview, department spokesman James Martin said that outcome was unlikely, and that the department is following its typical protocol in the compliance process.
“We need to wait and see what the response from the company is,” he said, when asked if DES would shut down the Saint-Gobain facility. Martin said it was premature for him to say whether the company would face repercussions for installing the bypass stack, which he described as a safety measure for machinery operating at high temperatures.
“The question here is why did the company not think to include (the bypass stack) in the initial permit application,” Martin said.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Saint-Gobain said the bypass stack was not hidden in any way.
“In fact, the bypass stack has been part of this project since the initial design of the RTO (regenerative thermal oxidizer) and it was fully detailed on design drawings prepared for this project and available to NH DES and the public throughout the process,” said Peter Clark, communications manager for the company in a written statement.
Clark said the company plans to work with the state to address the items detailed in the letter of deficiency and “to otherwise resolve this matter.”
The letter of deficiency gives Saint-Gobain 15 days to respond, asking the company for more information about the construction of the unauthorized bypass stack. The company has 30 days to provide a compliance plan and 45 days to request a “significant” permit amendment for the bypass stack. Martin said these timeframes are typical for how the department handles compliance actions.
“I would say that additionally the pollution control equipment that Saint-Gobain installed is currently operational,” Martin said.
But Rung said the timing laid out by DES was problematic. “We just can’t afford to wait,” she said.
“Every single day that passes, more and more PFAS gets emitted from that plant, gets deposited in the soil, and enters our drinking water,” she said.
Cleaning up PFAS chemicals once they have gotten into the water supply is very difficult and costly, which is why nationwide advocates have called to stop pollution at its source.
Criticism of the company was bipartisan. Jeanine Notter, a Merrimack Republican and the New Hampshire House majority whip, put out a statement criticizing Saint-Gobain for the pollution.
“Merrimack is unfairly burdened with footing the bill for what they did. There are no words in the English language to describe how wrong it is that Saint-Gobain continues to get away with what they did to our water supply,” Notter said.
Messmer emphasized the health impacts to New Hampshire residents who have had their water contaminated with harmful chemicals that are shown to cause kidney and renal pelvis cancer, testicular cancer, female breast cancer, prostate cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular impacts. As of Nov. 9, Messmer said that 884 properties, about 2,200 people, had been offered bottled water because their wells had been contaminated.
“Perhaps most disturbing is the effect on pregnant mothers and babies who experience pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, low birth weight babies, immune and endocrine disruption,” she said.
Messmer said that while the state’s cancer risk report doesn’t indicate increased risk for Merrimack residents, they actually have higher rates of several cancers compared to national averages and similar New England towns.
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