State, EPA Differ on Public Health Risk from Seacoast Superfund Site

Oct 10, 2017

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency said the Coakley Landfill, a superfund site in North Hampton, does not currently pose an unacceptable risk to human health.

That message came as a surprise to some members of a task force charged with investigating a cancer cluster on the Seacoast. They have been arguing for months that the EPA needs to be more proactive in addressing contamination at the site.

NHPR’s Seacoast Reporter Jason Moon recently sat down with All Things Considered host Sally Hirsh-Dickinson to talk more about this.

So first of all, tell us more about the Coakley superfund site. What is it?

It’s a landfill in North Hampton that took waste in the 70s and 80s. In the early 90s, it became one of the first superfund sites. The landfill was capped, monitoring wells were installed and the plan was to keep the contamination from industrial waste contained on site. For a while that seemed to be working, and frankly I think a lot of people in the area forgot the landfill was even there.

So when and why did people start to get interested in the superfund site again?

Part of the investigation of this cancer cluster task force was to look for potential environmental causes of the cancer.

They began to suspect that this landfill may contain this new class of contaminants, perfluorochemicals (PFCs), when they learned it accepted waste from the former Pease Air Force Base. Hundreds of people were exposed to PFCs at Pease because of a drinking water well that was contaminated by a firefighting foam used on the base. PFCs have also been found in about a dozen other sites around the state.

Once it was confirmed that PFCs were present at Coakley, the task force began focusing more on it.

Recently that task force held a meeting with a representative from the EPA. What happened?

The meeting wasn’t really supposed to be about this -- but they got into an argument about the EPA’s long term strategy for dealing with the PFC issue at Coakley. In the 90s, when EPA was first looking at Coakley, they decided on a strategy of natural attenuation. The idea here is to keep the contaminants contained on site, they will naturally degrade over time and the levels of toxicity will reduce.

But some on the task force say that we know there are PFCs at the site -- that strategy is no longer appropriate. That’s because PFCs don’t naturally degrade. They’ve been pushing EPA to move from natural attenuation to something called remediation -- which involves actually going in and removing the contaminants from the water. That’s obviously a lot more costly.

Over the last several months it seemed like momentum was building toward EPA ordering some kind of remediation at Coakley. In July, the state counterpart to EPA, the Department of Environmental Services said the migration of PFCs into surface water at Coakley was quote “unacceptable and need to be addressed.” Other groups like the Conservation Law Foundation have been lobbying both the EPA and state officials to be more proactive about this situation.

Then, last week Jim Murphy with the EPA told the task force: because nobody is being directly exposed to the PFCs right now, remediation isn’t necessary.

Here’s how Tom Sherman, chairman of the task force, a former state rep, and a doctor responded.

“If I were to summarize as a complete layman and country doctor – we have a situation where we have the Coakley Landfill with known toxic substances sitting at the highest point on the Seacoast with radial flow towards at least most of the municipal water systems and several private waters systems and the EPA right now is not planning to do anything about it.”

Jim Murphy with the EPA defended their approach. He said there’s a lot they are doing, including putting up warning signs near the contaminated surface water. They are also beginning to study whether the surface water contamination could be making fish downstream unsafe to eat. He also didn’t rule out remediation in the future.

“There are still a lot of data gaps. We haven’t reached the conclusion that, you know, how water is moving down in the bedrock. There’s not enough data on that. If there are people who say there’s enough data on that, we disagree with that at this point.”

What about the Department of Environmental Services? You said earlier that they called the situation unacceptable – did they take issue with the EPA’s finding?

No, not really. Mike Wimsatt with DES said after this meeting that both agencies are interested in stemming the migration of the contaminants into the surface water. Both agencies are meeting later this month with the Coakley Landfill Group to talk about that issue.

So what happens now?

EPA is ordering the Coakley Landfill group to conduct a bedrock study to determine if contaminants are moving underground toward private wells and public water supplies. The results of that study will have a lot to say about whether EPA orders a full remediation of the site, but the process could take as long as two years to complete.

In the meantime, the cancer cluster investigation will continue. The task force is becoming a legislative commission with some of the same members and they’re likely to keep their attention focused on Coakley.