The Bulletin Board

Environmental Services refers Saint-Gobain bypass stack issue to AG for enforcement

By: - December 7, 2021 2:56 pm
Exterior of the NH Department of Justice

Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Bob Scott said the department will review information it receives from Saint-Gobain and consult with the attorney general about “additional actions that may be taken.” (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The Department of Environmental Services has asked the state’s attorney general to get involved in enforcing Saint-Gobain’s permit for air emissions at the company’s facility in Merrimack.

At issue is a bypass stack Saint-Gobain built without the state’s permission, according to the DES. During a series of tests in September, state officials found that untreated emissions were leaving the plant through the bypass stack.

The facility produces fabrics that contain chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, which were found to have contaminated drinking water in areas around the Merrimack plant in 2016. The state required the plant to install an upgrade designed to burn off the harmful chemicals instead of allowing them to enter the air.

The company said the bypass stack was part of its plan all along and that it was included in drawings submitted to the town of Merrimack as part of the building permit application process. Saint-Gobain sent a response to the letter of deficiency on Dec 3., calling the bypass stack a routine safety feature.

In a subsequent letter also sent on Dec. 3, DES air resources division director Craig A. Wright informed Saint-Gobain plant manager Gabriel Caridade that the department had referred the issue to the Attorney General’s Office.

“Please be aware that at this time, SGPP (Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics) does not have authorization to operate a bypass,” Wright wrote. Saint-Gobain “should take whatever other measures are necessary to avoid any unsafe condition at the facility,” he said.

In a written statement, Saint-Gobain spokesperson Peter Clark said: “Saint-Gobain is complying with all requests and is in the process of providing all information that has been requested. As we made clear in our first response to NH DES last week, the emergency bypass is a standard and critical safety component of a regenerative thermal oxidizer (RTO) meant to protect our employees from significant injury or other dangerous situations during a sudden, unexpected shutdown of the system.”

After learning of the bypass stack in late November, state and local representatives called for the closure of the plant until the issue could be resolved. They pointed to the impact the harmful PFAS chemicals have had on New Hampshire residents, including contamination of drinking water. Exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to a variety of health problems, including cancer and cardiovascular impacts.

In an email to Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, DES Commissioner Bob Scott said the department will review information it receives from Saint-Gobain and consult with the attorney general about “additional actions that may be taken.”

Kelvin Allen Brooks, a senior assistant attorney general, said in an email that the Office of the Attorney General is reviewing the issue with the DES to determine what actions are appropriate.

Mindi Messmer, an environmental scientist, was among those calling for the plant’s closure. Messmer sees Saint-Gobain’s bypass as an attempt to avoid regulation, since there’s no agreement between the state and Saint-Gobain about how the bypass will be used. Messmer said that sending the matter to the attorney general for enforcement is a positive development and hopes that an enforcement action will put more pressure on Saint-Gobain to stop polluting.

“We’re hopeful that the Attorney General’s Office will take action to prevent Saint-Gobain’s continued noncompliance with the law,” she said.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.