CONCORD, N.H. — Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics announced Wednesday that it will be closing its facility in Merrimack, N.H.
The plant has been at the center of controversy and concern after the PFAS chemicals the company uses to produce stain and water resistant materials were found in nearby drinking water in 2016. A 2021 state report found cancer rates in Merrimack were higher than expected.
PFAS chemicals are man-made chemicals that have been widely used since the 1940s. They do not break down in the environment and can accumulate in people’s blood. Human exposure is considered a public health concern by the Center for Disease Control, as it may cause increased risk of some kinds of cancer.
The state reached an agreement with the company requiring it to provide drinking water to some impacted residents. And the plant is currently working on a remedial action plan for the plant property, according to Mike Wimsatt, solid waste division director with New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services.
He said the company will still be required to provide safe alternate drinking water to those covered by prior agreements and that the company will be responsible for clean up even after it leaves the site, which is expected to continue operating into 2024.
“They’ve assured us they will continue to meet their obligations with regard to sampling and water and we’ll hold them to that,” Wimsatt said.
“I don’t think (the closure) really changes anything with respect to ongoing work they’re doing to address the contamination,” he said.
The French company said it is closing the Merrimack facility as a part of restructuring its operations in the United States.
“This decision comes after careful consideration and strategic evaluation of what is best for achieving Saint-Gobain’s core business goals and is in line with the company’s mission and plan,” according to the announcement.
Saint-Gobain is among Merrimack’s major employers. The closure will impact 164 employees, according to a spokesperson for the company.
“The company values and thanks all of its employees for their hard work and is committed to supporting each employee through this transition,” said the company’s statement. It said “eligible employees” who want to stay at the company would be offered alternative roles and relocation assistance.
“Support packages will be made available to those who will not continue,” the statement said.
Merrimack Town Manager Paul Micali said the town’s welfare office is up to date with the closure and invites concerned residents to be in touch. The company paid the town $192,103 in taxes in 2022 and came to Merrimack under the name of ChemFab in 1983, according to Micali. He said they purchased the property from General Electric.
“The town feels for the employees of Saint-Gobain at this very difficult time,” Micali said. “We’re hoping Saint Gobain will honor its commitments to provide drinking water and to clean up the contamination.”
Environmental activists who have long criticized the plant are celebrating its closure as a win. This is an outcome they called for after the state discovered ongoing PFAS pollution in 2021.
“I’m glad the company has decided they’re going to discontinue polluting southern New Hampshire,” said Mindi Messmer, an environmental scientist who serves on the state’s commission on The Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Perfluorinated Chemicals.
She believes the move is the result of increased pressure and awareness in the state around PFAS. She also pointed to lawsuits New Hampshire residents have brought against the company seeking restitution and said the company’s decision to close the plant mirrors its decision to leave Vermont after facing increased scrutiny.
Vermont residents reached a settlement with Saint-Gobain including money for property damages, and funding for a court-supervised medical monitoring program to provide free testing and monitoring for the early detection of some diseases. A judge approved a $34 million settlement in 2022.
When asked if the changing regulatory environment impacted the company’s decision to leave, a company spokesperson said the decision was made “after careful consideration and evaluation of our company’s broader business strategy.”
“The next steps are the state of New Hampshire really has to make sure that they keep (Saint-Gobain’s) tab open for cleaning up the mess they’ve created in Southern New Hampshire,” Messmer said.
Wimsatt said the company has been installing between 25 to 30 home treatment systems per week, at this point, while continuing to extend the public water line to reach other homes whose wells were contaminated. Saint-Gobain is responsible for providing a permanent clean water solution to around 1,000 impacted properties under an agreement with the state.
Other local leaders agreed that the company’s departure would ultimately benefit the area.
“Today’s news is a step in the right direction for Merrimack residents and provides a significant opportunity to remediate the harm caused by Saint-Gobain,” said Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig in a written statement.
She expressed gratitude to advocates for raising awareness around the harmful effects of PFAS in the water supply.
“Their work has been critical in helping not just Merrimack, but all of us better understand the impacts of these harmful chemicals. This will help our state create a future with clean air and clean water,” she said.