PORTSMOUTH - A state legislative committee is set to vote Thursday on water quality standards for PFAS chemicals that are substantially lower than the ones set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Andrea Amico is a Portsmouth mother and wife whose children and husband were exposed to high levels of PFAS while drinking contaminated water from the city-owned Haven Well.
She called the scheduled vote “a critical moment in New Hampshire to take very protective and proactive steps to help protect residents from these chemicals.”
The New Hampshire Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR) is scheduled to vote on the proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCLs)/drinking water standards for PFAS and ambient groundwater quality standards (AGQS) at its Thursday meeting.
Amico understands there are groups who are lobbying against the more protective standards.
But she is asking the committee to “put public health over the interests of the Business and Industry Association and other groups who want to oppose the legislation.”
She added it’s been more than five years since thousands of people at Pease, along with kids at two day cares, were exposed to PFAS at the former Pease Air Force Base.
Since then “several other communities in the state have been dealing with PFAS contamination, too,” she said.
“It’s a very prevalent issue in NH and it’s an issue that’s not going away,” Amico said.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Services in June filed their final rulemaking proposal to establish the new standards.
The standards it proposed for New Hampshire are 12 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), 15 ppt for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), 18 ppt for perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxs) and 11 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA).
DES stated it established the levels to “ensure greater protection of public health related to the consumption of drinking water.”
The EPA in May 2016 set permanent health advisories for PFOS and PFOA at 70 ppt. But many states have set substantially lower levels, believing the EPA’s standards are not protective enough.
PFAS are man-made chemicals used in products worldwide since the 1950s, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware and water-repellent fabrics.
Officials believe firefighting foam contaminated the Haven Well at the Pease International Tradeport.
The Agency for Toxic Substances And Disease Registry states PFAS exposure can increase cancer risks, lower birth weights, harm the liver, thyroid and pancreas and increase cholesterol levels.
Some groups are lobbying against the adoption of the standards.
The Business and Industry Association, which describes itself as New Hampshire’s Statewide Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement calling for JLCAR to delay its scheduled vote and to “allow for more time to examine” the new standards.
“The issue of emerging contaminants is incredibly complex and the effects of altering the MCLs are widespread,” BIA President Jim Roche said in part in the statement. “ … The committee should put off this item until their August meeting at the earliest. This is particularly true given that the MCLs proposed by DES are so dramatically lower than standards set by most other states and the federal government health advisory level.”
Barbara Reid is the government finance adviser for the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
She’s hearing “significant concern” from the group’s members “about the financial cost” if the new standards are approved.
The state has estimated the new standards could cost as much as $190 million for municipalities to ensure their water systems and wastewater plants meet the new standards.
“The state is not financing this, there isn’t money for this,” Reid said. “There is the drinking water trust fund, but those are competitive grants and I don’t think there’s $200 million in there.”
Town and city officials are worried about how much it will cost to treat for PFAS if their water systems test above the new levels, and how they’re going to pay for it, Reid said.
“That’s our issue. It’s easy to say put public health over costs, but who's paying for those costs,” Reid said.
She also questioned how municipalities are going to comply with the new standards, which are slated to go into effect on Oct. 1 if the committee approves them.
“When EPA sets new MCLs, they usually have two-, three-, four-, five- or a six-year period before they’re implemented,” Reid said.
State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, believes the state’s taxpayers “should not have to pay the tab for contamination that the PFAS chemical companies caused.”
That’s why the state has filed suit against a number of PFAS companies, in what Sherman believes will be a “successful lawsuit.”
But he stressed the state can’t wait to take action to protect its residents from PFAS “until the money is available to clean it up.”
The opportunity this week to impose those new protective standards is a critical one, said Sherman, who is a medical doctor.
“This is all about whether the state is going to do the right thing and protect the health of its residents or reject the science and say it’s going to cost less than the actual cost of cleaning this up,” he said.
Sherman stressed the new numbers “reflect the current science,” but like with tobacco, arsenic and lead, “science often lags behind safety.”
“As with every other contaminant, the numbers drop as more science becomes available, that’s going to happen with PFAS, too,” Sherman said. “The numbers don’t go up, that’s not going to happen, they go down.”
Scientist and former state Rep. Mindi Messmer of Rye understands there are groups lobbying against the new standards.
“It’s definitely a concern and that’s why we are working to help people to connect with their representatives to let them know how important this is,” Messmer said.
The group New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, which Messmer helped create, has released a video in advance of this week’s committee vote.
The video, which can be viewed at safewaternh.org, points out that New Hampshire has the highest rates of pediatric, breast, bladder and esophageal cancers “in all of America.”
The video, which shows a glass of water being placed in front of a young girl, then encourages people to contact their lawmakers about the issue “before it’s too late.”
Messmer credited the group of lawmakers and advocates who have pushed for the state to implement more protective levels, including Amico, Sherman, state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, and state reps. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and Mike Edgar, D-Hampton.
“I think it’s a huge win for all of us who have been working on this for three years,” Messmer said. “It started out no one knew what PFAS was and now people know what it is and that they need to be protected from it.”
Messmer believes it’s critical for people to reach out to committee members in advance of Thursday’s vote.
“Scientists tell us there is no low dose that doesn't create some kind of chronic disease,” she said about PFAS. “Very low levels of these chemicals can cause very serious health concerns.”