When word got out that Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, a manufacturing company at the center of lawsuits and regulatory action over its record of pollution, was seeking to expand operations at its Merrimack facility, Laurene Allen said many of her friends and neighbors reacted with disbelief and anger.
“Everybody — I was like, ‘What do you think about this?’ The reaction was the same. They're like, ‘What? That's crazy,’ ” said Allen, a Merrimack resident turned environmental activist.
State regulators are inching closer to a decision on whether to approve Saint-Gobain’s permits, which would allow the company to increase its capacity and would last five years. But a group of residents, environmental activists and local officials say the company’s track record of pollution raises concerns for their health.
In public forums, comments to state regulators and informal conversations, many residents say the risk of further pollution is too great to allow Saint-Gobain to expand its operations.
"I think given the history and the potential health impacts, [expanded operation] is, in my opinion, unacceptable and shouldn't be granted," said Nancy Murphy, a Merrimack town councilor and state representative.
Saint-Gobain has submitted applications for a state permit to operate, which includes a new coater that would increase processing capacity by 7%, according to Catherine Beahm, air administrator with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
The company also applied for a permit for a piece of equipment called a bypass stack they installed in 2021, initially without the state’s knowledge. When the bypass stack is on, emissions go directly into the air. The permit states this should only be turned on in emergencies.
Beahm said the company submitted the required monitoring, modeling and stack test results to move forward with the application for these longer-term permits. Then the department went through a review, evaluation and drafting process, which took about a year to complete.
“We've tried to follow all of our regulations consistent with any other facility,” said Beahm.
Since 2018, Saint-Gobain has been subject to state fines and stricter PFAS regulations. The company also had to install equipment known as a regenerative thermal oxidizer to burn emissions before they enter the environment.
But that hasn’t stopped residents from voicing skepticism around the company. Last month, the state Department of Environmental Services held a public hearing for residents to give feedback on these applications. Several people asked the department to deny Saint-Gobain these permits based on the company’s history of pollution.
“My neighborhood is covered in cancer, and it got my son,” said Nicole Janosz, holding up photos of her family at the hearing in June. “How much value is it to let this company just keep harming human beings?”
Those pushing back against Saint-Gobain’s permit requests raise a handful of concerns. First, they are questioning the permit drafting process itself. Per state law, state environment regulators set the permit’s terms based on reporting from the company.
While that may be standard practice, Mindi Messmer, a former state representative and environmental scientist who has been at the forefront of local PFAS activism, said there’s little reason to trust Saint-Gobain.
Messmer also said regulators could be doing more to hold Saint-Gobain accountable. For instance, she said the state environmental department should be doing something called “split sampling.” This involves creating a duplicate of the samples that the company tests and sending them off to separate labs to verify their results. It’s a way of double checking data being provided by the company that’s being regulated.
“What we're concerned about is that a lot of faith is being put into some of these issues in the permit that rely on Saint-Gobain being a steward of the public health of the community, without really being checked,” said Messmer.
Beahm said at the company’s request, the Department of Environmental Services also added a concession to the draft permit: if Saint-Gobain tests at 75 percent or below established limits for the four state-regulated PFAS chemicals on two annual tests, they can reduce their yearly testing to every three years.
Allen argues this gives the company too much leeway.
“If you're going to add to your process and add to your chemical use, and nobody's going to watch you for three years, that doesn't really add up to me,” she said.
Saint-Gobain said they’ve been testing well below limits for the four state-regulated PFAS chemicals, and that their request for less regular testing is reasonable.
“This would align with generally accepted testing time frames in other federal and state air permitting programs,“ a Saint-Gobain spokesperson wrote in an email to NHPR.
Some experts agree it isn’t uncommon for companies to make this kind of request. But the nature of “forever chemicals” like PFAS, said Messmer, is a big concern for area residents.
“I think the state is used to dealing with chemicals that don't last forever. They have to adjust their thinking about how to approach these kinds of permits when it’s an accumulation over time that happens rather than them ever going away,” said Messmer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that two of the four chemicals New Hampshire regulates — and that Saint-Gobain produces in their emissions — should not be in drinking water at all because of the health risks they pose. The federal agency anticipates publishing updated maximum contaminant levels (or MCL’s) for PFAS in drinking water this October.
At the June hearing, Beahm said the state agency’s water division would be responsible for enforcing any updated MCL’s issued by federal regulators should they differ from the state limits.
Merrimack Town Manager Paul Micali said the town’s taken multiple steps over the years to reduce PFAS exposure in the wake of Saint-Gobain’s pollution.
“Really what we're trying to do is, we're trying to help the individuals in Merrimack so that they can have clean drinking water,” said Micali.
Residents voted to spend $14.5 million to install filters in local wells in 2019. The town also applied for grants to install water treatment systems to service lines entering individual homes, Micali said.
Critics have also raised concerns about the modeling used to establish the limits on PFAS emissions in the permit. That’s because data that was used to calculate the models was supplied directly by Saint-Gobain.
Murphy, the Merrimack town councilor and state representative, said the company hasn’t proven itself to be a good corporate neighbor in the eyes of residents.
“Given the track record that we've seen, what we hear from citizens is there's not a lot of faith in the veracity of the information that's being reported,” she said.
Saint-Gobain officials say they’ve made efforts to reduce the effects of their pollution.
Most recently, they’ve introduced a reimbursement program for residents who bought their own point-of-entry water treatment systems before the company started a program to pay for these installations.
Yet still, multiple organizations, such as Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water and New Hampshire’s Sierra Club chapter, have suggested ways the permit could be strengthened to mitigate potential PFAS impacts. This includes incorporating real-time air monitors, testing for other fluorinated chemicals such as Gen X and more.
The company is also facing multiple lawsuits.
Following the discovery of PFAS contamination in 2018, the state and Saint-Gobain entered into a consent decree. This established that the company would implement remediation strategies for areas affected by its air emissions.
The decree addressed hundreds of wells in the vicinity of the Merrimack plant. However, some area residents are concerned that anyone connected to a well outside of the consent decree boundary may also be at risk of PFAS exposure.
The Merrimack Village Water District filed a lawsuit in 2021 against Saint-Gobain and two other local manufacturing companies — TCI and Diacom — alleging these companies’ production methods polluted the district’s supply wells with PFAS. These wells were not already recognized in the consent decree. The case is scheduled to be heard sometime in 2025, according to the water operator’s attorney.
Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Supreme Court denied efforts by Merrimack residents to get Saint-Gobain to cover the costs of medical monitoring of residents' blood levels due to exposure to toxic substances such as PFAS. The court said if there’s no present injury, residents could not be entitled to the monitoring.
Research from the state Department of Health and Human Services found that Merrimack residents had higher than expected rates of kidney and renal cancer between 2009 and 2018. Environmental advocate Allen said that’s why any additional exposure to PFAS is unacceptable.
“I know the word ‘deserve’ doesn't really get you anywhere in the regulatory world,” said Allen. “But we really do deserve and need an end to this exposure.”
The state environmental commissioner will issue a decision on what versions of Saint-Gobain’s permit applications, if any, are approved by Aug. 18.
Editor's note, Monday, July 31: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described one aspect of the 2018 consent decree between Saint-Gobain and the state of New Hampshire.