Legislature looking at ways to make groundwater safer

MarketsAssociated Press

A year after hundreds of sites in the state were found contaminated with a suspected carcinogen, the safety of groundwater is under scrutiny in the Legislature.

Rep. Mindi Messmer, a Democrat from Rye, has introduced several bills aimed at better protecting residents from toxic groundwater, including two that got their first hearing Tuesday. One would set up a commission to study long-term goals and requirements for drinking water along the state's seacoast. The second would require the state to consider chemical exposure "to children and other vulnerable populations" when determining the allowable levels for about 20 emerging chemicals that have turned in up drinking water and would call for the state to revisit those standards each year.

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"I'd like to find a way to develop standards in the state of New Hampshire that are more protective for our children — the unborn children and the young children — for exposure to toxins like this and to be able to keep up with the science as it emerges," Messmer told a legislative committee.

Among the most worrisome of those chemicals is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, part of a family of chemicals used to make nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpeting. It has been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Since last year, PFOA has been found in the drinking water at 222 sites across the state. More than 180 sites are connected to contamination from a plastics company's facility in Merrimack. Similar contamination was found near the company's now-defunct plant in Vermont, and regulators in New York identified them as potentially responsible for chemical contamination in Hoosick Falls' water.

Scores of parents testified the current standard for PFOA, 70 parts per trillion, is too lax considering scientists are still learning about the health impacts of it. In Vermont the standard is 20 parts per trillion, and several other states have considered even lower standards.

Another contaminant, the suspected carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, has leaked into the groundwater at several sites in New Hampshire, including from a now-defunct dump owned by Dartmouth College. And, like PFOA, the state's standard of 3 parts per billion is far higher than other states', such as Massachusetts', which is 0.3 parts per billion.

Alayna Davis, whose 6-year-old son has elevated levels of PFOAs in his blood from drinking contaminated water, told legislators House Bill 485 is the type of legislation "that will help make sure my family is protected."

"Unfortunately," she said, "superfund sites are in our backyards where our kids are playing, and our families are being exposed to many toxins and emerging contaminants as a result."

The state has come out against the bill, saying it trusts the federal government to set the standards for these chemicals — even as Republican President Donald Trump's administration announced a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.

The assistant commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, Clark Freise, said he believes implementation of a state-based approach to drinking water standards is unwarranted given the expertise at the EPA and the oversight process his department follows to assess its findings.