'We Need To Be Ready' - Northeast Reckons With Chemical Contamination At EPA Forum

Jun 27, 2018

Laurene Allen of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water testifies at the EPA meeting, in front of a photo of a child from her community who's developed cancer Allen suspects is related to PFAS in their drinking water.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

New Englanders had a chance to speak out this week about what they want to see in new Environmental Protection Agency rules for industrial chemicals in drinking water – but residents say the proof that they were heard will be in what the regulators do next.

The EPA’s two-day meeting in Exeter was the agency’s first regional public input session on its plans for a broad class of chemicals known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

PFAS include chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS, commonly used until around 2000 by companies like 3M and Dupont in a huge range of products – from non-stick Teflon pans and Gore-Tex jackets, to firefighting foams and stain-resistant carpets.

But the PFAS category encompasses thousands of man-made chemicals in all – most of them unregulated, many found in high levels in drinking water around former military installations, fire stations, landfills and factories.

While a recent federal report says PFAS levels in Americans’ blood are declining, existing contamination in drinking water or human bodies will still take decades to break down.

Some PFAS have been linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, high cholesterol, kidney and liver problems, and preeclampsia and hypertension in pregnant women.

New Hampshire in the spotlight

Nearly 200 residents and public officials from all six New England states were at the EPA meeting June 24-25 – but the predominant testimony came from neighbors of Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth and the Saint Gobain plastics factory in Merrimack.

Pease was one of the first major PFAS investigation sites in New England. Chemicals were found at high levels in the public water system in 2014.

Andrea Amico co-founded Testing for Pease and made several presentations at the forum. Her kids ingested PFAS while in daycare at Pease, which she says brings her guilt every day.

“This situation has really robbed me of some of my happiness as a mother, as a person, and that’s something I can never get back,” she says.

Amico and others called for stricter limits on PFAS as soon as possible – they suggested 1 part per trillion, compared to the EPA’s current non-binding limit of 70 parts per trillion, which New Hampshire has adopted. 

Activists unfurled a banner showing populations affected by PFAS around New England outside the first night of the meeting in Exeter.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

The meeting came soon after the release of a report from an arm of the Centers for Disease Control, which said certain PFAS can threaten human health at levels seven to 10 times lower than that EPA advisory.

The findings, which EPA had reportedly wanted withheld, mean many wells considered safe under current state laws would be deemed risky by the CDC.

The agency’s toxicology director, Bill Cibulas, made an unscheduled appearance at the Exeter meeting’s agenda to say the CDC study was based on data that’s still “uncertain.”

“This is not a bright line here – these are not regulatory actions, they’re not necessarily thresholds,” Cibulas said. “We’re not saying that exposures estimated above our minimal risk levels are to be associated with health effects. For us, what it means is we need to look more closely at the community.”

‘Looking down the barrel of a gun’

Communities that worry about their wells still want action from state and federal regulators.

Several Merrimack residents testified about cancers and other conditions they suspect are linked to PFAS from Saint Gobain. They called for New Hampshire to lower its PFAS limit, do more blood tests to get data from citizens, and provide more bottled water.

And residents near the Seacoast’s Coakley Landfill Superfund site also asked the state to be proactive. High levels of PFAS have been found around the landfill, and are already present in some neighbors’ wells at levels the CDC has deemed potentially risky.

“Seeing those detection levels from the [landfill] monitoring wells makes me feel like I’m looking down the barrel of a gun, waiting for all of those parts per trillion to disperse to our drinking water wells,” said Jillian Lane, an activist from Greenland. 

'We are going to find it everywhere. We need to be ready for that.' -Peter Walke, Vermont Dept. of Natural Resources

The other big message to EPA was about money.

Residents want the agency to do more to make polluters – including private industry and the Department of Defense – fund response, including health and environmental monitoring, water filters and treatment at PFAS hotspots.

Sue Phelan lives on Cape Cod, where the county firefighting academy left PFAS in the peninsula’s sole-source aquifer. Like many similar sites, it’s now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.

“Yes, this will be expensive. You need to make the polluters pay,” Phelan said in her testimony, to applause. 

State officials said they want uniform standards and more guidance and resources most of all. Vermont’s deputy natural resources secretary Peter Walke said they’ll need as much help as they can get as more states discover PFAS in their communities.

“It’s everywhere – we are going to find it everywhere,” Walke said. “We need to be ready for that, and we need to look for it and we need to be ready with solutions.”

He and others also asked EPA to approach all PFAS as a single issue, not thousands of separate ones – and to be proactive, rather than reactive.

Sean Dixon, the EPA’s senior policy advisor in New England, summarized their takeaways as the meeting ended.

He said they heard clearly that residents want more proactive management, and for EPA "to engage the industry more to work towards replacement of these compounds, and to flip the script on this ‘safe until proven toxic’ standard of planning that a lot of members of the community expressed concern with." 

Members of the Brentwood Democratic Committee held signs outside the meeting at Exeter High School.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

He said they also understood that residents want more comprehensive and uniform data, standards and communication on the issue.

‘Nothing about us without us’

Public officials at the meeting also seized on a line used by one local activist: “nothing about us without us.” They encouraged EPA and each other to give citizens a seat at the table in PFAS response and regulation.

The EPA has promised to issue more state guidance and groundwater cleanup recommendations for PFAS this year. It’s also pursuing a binding limit for certain PFAS in drinking water, and working to list PFAS as a hazardous waste substance at Superfund sites.

And it wants to study the chemicals that have replaced PFAS in American manufacturing.

'I appreciate them listening to us... but we've heard all this.' -Kristen Mello, Westfield, MA

But some residents say they’ll believe those promises when they see them benefit their towns.

Kristen Mello lives in Westfield, Massachusetts, which is considered an environmental justice community – where contamination has an outsize effect on low-income residents and people of color.

She and others in her community have a range of chronic health problems that may be linked to decades of PFAS in their drinking water.

She says they’re grateful to more affluent areas like Pease for bringing national attention to PFAS in New England – but she says Westfield hasn’t seen much action on its PFAS problem.

“They’re worried about what they imagine,” she says. “We’re worried about the people we’ve seen die and the family members we have who are sick.”

Mello feels communities like Westfield didn’t get didn't get enough attention at the EPA meeting. And she’s not convinced yet that change will come quickly, or spread equally to everyone.

"I have shaken the podium three minutes at a time for a long, long time,” she says. “So I appreciate them listening to us ... but we've heard all this.”

The EPA will hold other regional meetings on PFAS in the coming months as it develops new plans and regulations.

New Englanders can also submit comments in writing through July 20. The EPA has received more than 26,000 comments on its PFAS plans online to date.

This story has been updated to clarify that EPA is taking residents' input into consideration, but has not yet made any formal policy decisions based on the Exeter meeting.