MERRIMACK, N.H. — Six years after local officials learned that a plastics factory here was spewing massive amounts of toxic chemicals into the air, Nancy Lundquist opened a letter from the state with a frightening and mystifying subject line: “GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION NOTIFICATION.”
Lundquist and her husband, who moved to the nearby town of Bedford several years ago, were only vaguely familiar with the extent of the pollution, which is now considered the largest source of groundwater contamination in the history of New Hampshire, affecting tens of thousands of people throughout the region.
So the Lundquists, who have a 7-year-old daughter, were taken aback when they read in April that at least one of their neighbors’ wells had been found to contain toxic chemicals at levels that the state’s law deems unsafe to drink. The letter advised them to contact the multinational manufacturing company that owns the factory, Saint-Gobain, to request that their own well be tested.
“This is an awful situation to be in,” said Lundquist, 46, a nurse. “We moved here from North Carolina, and I thought we were fine. It’s really frustrating ... water is an essential thing.”
The Lundquists are among thousands of people who live in the vicinity of the plant and who state officials believe have contaminated wells that haven’t yet been tested. Unlike the Lundquists, many of those residents have not been contacted by either the state or the company. Hundreds of other property owners, like the Lundquists, have been told by the company that it’s up to them to pay for testing and any needed remediation.
The pollution comes from years of the plant, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, manufacturing everything from radar domes to insulation for special hoses. The factory emits a range of toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which are commonly called “forever chemicals,” because they never fully break down in the environment. Minute amounts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals have been linked to cancer, low infant birth weights, and a range of diseases.
Over many years, even before Saint-Gobain took over the factory from another chemical company in 2001, the plant has released thousands of pounds of the chemicals through its stacks. The chemicals, especially one known as PFOA, have been carried by the wind for at least 6 miles in every direction, eventually infiltrating groundwater and private wells.
State officials learned of the pollution in 2016, after PFOA was detected in such significant amounts in the water system in Merrimack that the state had to order the shutdown of two public wells. Those wells supplied water to most residents of this working-class town of about 25,000 people in southern New Hampshire. The water was found to have PFOA concentrations of as much as 130 parts per trillion, more than 10 times the amount New Hampshire now permits. Two years ago, New Hampshire prohibited drinking water from having concentrations of 12 parts per trillion or more of that compound. Other states have even stricter standards for PFOA.
Saint-Gobain executives acknowledged their responsibility in a settlement agreement with the state in 2018 and promised to alert homeowners in most of a 65-square-mile area around their plant about possible contamination of their wells. They also agreed to cover the costs of testing and provide clean drinking water for many of those who lived there, but they didn’t agree to cover those whose wells could have been polluted by another source.
As of April, the company had identified 3,691 wells that could have been contaminated in the area, of which about 1,000 were confirmed to exceed New Hampshire regulatory limits. But there are many more that the company is denying responsibility for, including some 700 inside the 65-square-mile zone as well as another 650 just outside it. Environmental advocates believe there are likely far more wells throughout the area that were polluted by the company.
Peter Clark, a spokesman for Saint-Gobain, said the company should not be held responsible for wells inside the zone that may have been contaminated in other ways.
“Given these properties’ proximity to other potential sources of PFAS, including a nearby fire station, our company believes other entities should be involved in sampling efforts in this specific location,” he said.
In a letter to the company last month, state officials pressed Saint-Gobain to submit a plan to test the 700 wells the state identified within the 65-square-mile zone. In a separate statement, state officials described the wells outside that zone as being located “within inferred areas of impact from Saint-Gobain’s releases.”
“All water supply wells within the [65-square-mile] Outer Boundary are at some level of risk for contamination due to air emissions from the Saint-Gobain facility, and therefore need to be evaluated,” wrote Jeffrey Marts, administrator of the hazardous waste remediation bureau at the Department of Environmental Services, in the letter.
Meanwhile, the company had yet to test 40 percent of the wells it does claim responsibility for and had only provided bottled water to about a quarter of the residents dependent on them, according to a report it provided to the state last month. That’s mainly, the company reported, because it hasn’t been able to reach at least 1,250 of the property owners.
Clark and other company officials said they were doing everything they could to reach out to homeowners, including mailing notices to homes to offer free testing of their wells, holding public meetings, and providing updates to public officials and on a company website.
When asked why they weren’t knocking on the doors of property owners who haven’t responded to their letters, Clark didn’t provide a direct answer.
“Our company has taken every reasonable step to ensure residents are informed and kept updated on our work,” he said.
For those properties that have wells with confirmed contamination in the areas where the company has acknowledged responsibility — nearly 1,500 have been identified so far — Clark said they have distributed nearly 500,000 gallons of bottled water and installed more than 15 miles of water lines that have provided potable water to 622 homes.
The company has also spent millions of dollars seeking to eliminate most of the PFAS it emits, Clark added. It has installed a closed-loop wastewater system and last summer activated an emissions-control system that has reduced the amount of PFOA and other toxic chemicals discharged into the air to levels that comply with state requirements. Before installing those systems, the plant was emitting between 864 pounds and 2,236 pounds a year of 89 identified PFAS chemicals, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But environmental advocates have questioned the efficacy of some of those measures, noting that stack tests show the plant continues to emit some 2 pounds a year of 49 different PFAS chemicals, many of them with unknown dangers that aren’t regulated by the state. They have also raised concerns about the accuracy of the stack tests and the sufficiency of state requirements to reduce air pollution. Contractors hired by the company performed the tests, with oversight from the state.
“I’m concerned about the other compounds,” said Mindi Messmer, a former state representative and environmental scientist who wrote the 2020 bill that required the state to set PFAS limits. “We don’t know about the health effects of any of these. It’s a problem to allow them to spew these into the environment.”
Messmer, who now serves on a state commission overseeing the response to Saint-Gobain’s pollution, said she doesn’t trust the company’s executives, noting that they had to be taken to court to comply with requirements to install the emissions-control system.
“It’s like an experiment on our community,” she said. “We’re already seeing our community experiencing higher rates of cancer.”
Last December, state officials released a report that found between 2009 and 2018 residents in Merrimack had a 42 percent higher incidence of kidney cancer than residents in the rest of New Hampshire. The study also found unusually high rates for myeloma as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder, colon, and testicular cancers. Previous studies have linked PFOA with an increased risk of kidney cancer in populations living in areas with significant environmental contamination.
Another study published in February by the journal Environmental Health Insights found that between 2005 and 2014 Merrimack had elevated rates of several cancers compared with similar towns in New England, as well as the nation at large.
State health officials have said the reports merit further study.
“While this preliminary data does not necessarily indicate the presence of a cancer cluster, any data that points to the possibility of increased illness in our communities warrants closer examination,” said Patricia Tilley, director of the Division of Public Health at New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement accompanying their report in December.
But many residents in the area believe there’s a link between the company’s pollution and their ill health.
For 36 years, Carol Williams lived in a two-story Colonial about 2 miles from the plant. As an avid runner, she drank lots of tap water. Between 2010 and 2020, she was diagnosed with bladder, breast, and kidney cancers, requiring eight surgeries that removed a kidney, her gallbladder, and parts of her pancreas, right lung, and breasts.
Tests of her home’s well in Bedford in 2019 found that it was contaminated with more PFOA than the state’s law now permits, as well as other PFAS chemicals.
“PFOA causes kidney cancer, and I have kidney cancer, so I’m putting two and two together,” said Williams, 71, who now lives in New Jersey and only learned about the potential connection between the pollution and her cancers by reading an article last year in a New Hampshire newspaper. “I don’t think the state has done enough to publicize this, or to take action to correct it. More must be done.”
Kathryn Conway, who can see Saint-Gobain’s plant from the duplex where she grew up in Litchfield, believes that her father’s prostate cancer may be the result of her family’s contaminated drinking water.
She called the potential link between the pollution and his cancer as “profoundly sad as it is outrageous.”
There are other sources of indignation. After Saint-Gobain acknowledged responsibility for polluting their well, the company paid to connect their home to the public water supply. Like others in the same predicament, who long had free water from their wells, the Conways now have water bills that cost more than $1,000 a year.
“I have a great deal of difficulty speaking with any measure short of fury about the fact that, once again, huge, high-profile, and very profitable corporations … continue to pollute our air and our drinking water,” Conway said.
Saint-Gobain’s pollution has spawned multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits, including those filed by local residents, and other complaints, including one by Amiel Gross, a former company lawyer who spent much of his six years at the company responding to litigation about the pollution. Last year, Gross asked the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate his claim that he was fired after urging the company’s executives to do more to address contamination from their plants in Merrimack; Bennington, Vt.; and Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
In his whistleblower complaint, Gross said he “sounded an internal alarm and … warned others that the company had a duty to fully investigate, rule out contamination of nearby drinking water sources, and ensure other communities were not unknowingly consuming the same toxic chemical.”
In response, he said, “senior leadership of Saint-Gobain instructed him to look the other way, punished him with termination, and continued to retaliate against him.”
Clark called Gross’s allegations “without merit.”
For the Lundquists, the alarm bells are just now ringing, but they have yet to get any help from the company or the state.
The letter they received from the Department of Environmental Services said the state wouldn’t be testing their well. It referred the Lundquists to a company hot line. They called, but got a recording and left messages.
More than a month later — after the Globe contacted the company, asking about the Lundquists property — they finally received a call from a consultant working for Saint-Gobain. The consultant, however, told them that the company wouldn’t cover the costs of testing their well, either, as they have denied responsibility for any pollution in their neighborhood.
Shortly before, the Lundquists learned that their neighbors across the street, Tom and Dede Sullivan, received a similar letter from the state and paid the $700 cost of having their well tested. The Sullivans’ well was found to have PFOA levels exceeding the state’s standards, as well as significant amounts of other PFAS chemicals.
The Sullivans also started looking into the costs of installing a filtration system for their water. They received quotes amounting to $18,000, a bill they expect they will have to foot themselves.
“It’s crazy,” Nancy Lundquist said. “Saint-Gobain needs to be held accountable. Something needs to be done soon.”
They’re now paying for bottled water, but they continue to cook and brush their teeth with their tap water — wondering all the while whether it may be contaminated.
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.