Untangling Why Saint-Gobain Chose New Hampshire

Apr 22, 2016

 

Chemfab's 1993 promotional materials.
Credit Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

  In 2002, the Saint-Gobain performance plastics plant in Merrimack doubled in size.  That growth happened when the company decided to close its plant in Bennington, Vt., and move those operations to Merrimack, N.H.

In Vermont, there’s been a lot of speculation as to why that move took place.

On Friday, reporter Emily Corwin spoke with NHPR's All Things Considered host, Peter Biello about the move.

Why did Saint-Gobain move its Bennington plant to New Hampshire?

When the Bennington plant closed back in 2001, the plant's manager told a local paper that there were a few motivators. There was declining demand, they needed to streamline; and -- he said this: it's because Vermont's pollution regulations were -- basically -- more demanding than New Hampshire's. 

And while in New Hampshire we haven't heard this angle much, the idea that Vermont's stricter pollution policies saved it from additional PFOA contamination is something that state's commissioner mentions to media... frequently.

Have you found anything to back up that claim, that Saint Gobain doubled its capacity in New Hampshire because our air regulations were more lax?

I've been warned that’s an over-simplification. Remember – all this happened 15 to 20 years ago. It's possible that the company really did just want to consolidate, and it's hard to prove why they chose New Hampshire over other locations. A few weeks ago the company told me it moved in response to global competition.

"In 2001, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics announced that it was consolidating operations in Merrimack, N.H., due to overcapacity and competitive global pressures.  The company selected the locations with the best manufacturing facilities to remain in operation," writes Dina Pokedoff, a communications officer with Saint-Gobain.

Excerpt from a 1995 preliminary proposal sent from Chemfab in North Bennington, VT to the Air Pollution Control Division with the state of Vermont.
Credit Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

  Still, the fact remains that Vermont did require air pollution controls on their production towers, and New Hampshire did not.

If you read the letters between the company -- then called Chemfab -- and the state of Vermont, you can see that for many years Chemfab made it clear to Vermont regulators that if Vermont continued to require these expensive pollution devices, the company might move to New Hampshire.

What kind of devices were they?

They were designed to burn exhaust off from the manufacturing process – like an incinerator in your car. They helped reduce smoke, and odor,  and chemicals like benzene.  See Vermont regulates odor, New Hampshire does not.  But what these things were not designed to do – is control for PFOA. But I’m told it’s possible, since PFOA breaks down at high temperatures, that they may have reduced some of that contamination.

The thing is - they guzzled propane, which was expensive – and let off their own fuel emissions. So: the company would tell Vermont: ‘New Hampshire doesn’t require these, why do you?’

Unattributed handwritten document included in 1996 and 1997 correspondences between Chemfab and State of Vermont. By 2001, Chemfab (by then owned by Saint-Gobain) argued the propane cost over $300,000 each year.
Credit Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

  Remind me what Chemfab/Saint-Gobain makes?

Sure.  So today Saint Gobain has 15 towers which they use to coat fabric in PTFE, the compound used in Teflon. PTFE is super strong, flexible, and slippery. It's used in buildings, hazmat type suits, electronics -- all kinds of things. 

Anyway that teflonny substance coats the fabric, but lets off a toxic compound related to PFOA into the air, along with all kinds of other compounds. Regulators believe PFOA may have gotten into the water as the particles fell to the ground from the air.

Excerpt of a 1997 fax from Robert Prohaska, then manager at Chemfab in Bennington, to Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources.
Credit Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

Today, both Vermont and New Hampshire are dealing with water contamination. Has Vermont continued to be more strict in their response?

Yes, in at least one way.  While New Hampshire and Maine have set their threshold for safe drinking water at 100 parts per trillion, Vermont has been far more conservative, providing bottled water to anyone above 20 parts per trillion. Although researchers like Harvard’s Philippe Grandjean are advocating for very low drinking water regulations, this week – Saint-Gobain actually filed a lawsuit arguing scientific evidence doesn’t back up Vermont’s low threshold.