The New Hampshire House passed a bill Tuesday that would put into law some of country's toughest drinking water standards for a group of toxic chemicals and provides tens of millions of dollars to help communities in the state meet the rules.
The House voted 210 to 116 on the standards put forth last year by the state Department of Environmental Services for potentially harmful chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS.
The standards limit one chemical to a maximum of 12 parts per trillion and another to 15 ppt, far lower than the 70 ppt the federal Environmental Protection Agency has advised for the chemicals.
The bill was crafted in response to a lawsuit filed last year by 3M, a farmer and several others who are trying to block the standards from taking effect. A judge in the case issued a temporary injunction in December that prevents the standards from being enforced.
If the bill becomes law, it would sidestep that injunction and allow the standards to be enforced — just as they are for lead and arsenic.
"We're talking about cleaning up drinking water," Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, told lawmakers. "I think we need to realize we can't wait any longer. There's nothing more precious than having the ability to drink clean water."
Rep. Kathryn Stack, one of several Democrats from Merrimack who co-sponsored the bill, said action was necessary to combat the threat posed by PFAS in communities like hers.
"The presence of PFAS chemicals in our state and specifically in Merrimack has put enormous strain, both health and financial on families in our community," Stack said in a statement. "I know that Granite Staters value the health and welfare of their families and that at the end of the day believe that politics should not come above holding polluters accountable and remediating their damage."
Opponents said the $50 million in loans included in the bill to help communities with remediation efforts is less than a fifth of the estimated cost of such an undertaking. And while the bill directs any money derived from lawsuits against chemical manufacturers to cover that cost, "there's no settlement in sight," said Rep. James Spillane, R-Deerfield.
Spillane was joined by a leading business group in the state, the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire. It has long argued the issue should continue to be litigated in the courts.
"This sets a dangerous precedent to allow the Legislature to pass this plan, which carries extraordinary costs for cities, towns and businesses, without any demonstrable benefits," said Mike Skelton, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. "Lawmakers should not play the role of scientists. Agencies are where technical expertise is necessary and where specific and detailed policies must be set. We would urge the governor to veto this bill on these grounds."
The loans to communities could be paid back if the state reaches a settlement with the eight companies, including 3M and the DuPont Co., that it has sued, accusing them of being responsible for damage caused by PFAS.
Among supporters of the bill were environmental groups and the NH Municipal Association, which welcomed the funding for cities and towns.
The standards were inspired by widespread PFAS contamination across the state. Hundreds of homes in New Hampshire, including in Merrimack, whose drinking water was contaminated by PFAS have been connected to new water. The state estimates more than 100,000 other people eventually could be affected.
Studies have found potential links between high levels in the body of one form of the contaminants and a range of illnesses, including kidney cancer, increased cholesterol levels and problems in pregnancies. In the case of New Hampshire, the state lowered the standards it proposed after reviewing a study that found toddlers could be exposed to PFAS through breast milk.
"Today, the Legislature has sent a clear message that it is time for industry to share some of their billions in profits to help the people they have sickened, prevent more from getting sick and clean up the toxic mess they made in New Hampshire," Mindi Messmer, co-founder of the New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, said in a statement.