by Hadley Barndollar, New Hampshire Bulletin
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the French multinational corporation at the center of New Hampshire’s PFAS controversy, has announced it will close its facility in Merrimack.
The abrupt announcement comes less than a week after the state’s Department of Environmental Services approved Saint-Gobain for a new five-year operating permit, a decision that followed major pushback from area residents, officials, and environmental advocates.
Though not legally attributed in court, the state of New Hampshire has credited widespread contamination of air and water in Merrimack, Londonderry, Bedford, Litchfield, and Hudson to Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances from the plastics manufacturer. In 2016, contamination was initially discovered in hundreds of wells and the number has grown exponentially since.
Saint-Gobain has been providing permanent clean water solutions to approximately 1,000 properties as a condition of a “consent decree” agreed upon with the state. According to DES, Saint-Gobain had also been expected to begin construction on municipal water connections throughout Bedford and Merrimack this fall and in spring 2024.
In a statement released Wednesday morning, Saint-Gobain said it will restructure its Composite Solutions business in the U.S. and as a result will close its facility in Merrimack, which the corporation purchased in 2002. Prior, a company called Chemfab operated there dating back to 1986.
“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,” the statement said.
The company “will continue to work closely with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services on the ongoing environmental investigation and remediation effort, including providing bottled water and permanent alternate water, as appropriate, within the Consent Decree area,” the statement continued.
In a separate statement to elected officials obtained by the Bulletin, Saint-Gobain said it will fulfill all current contracts, but as of Tuesday would not accept any new orders or extend contracts. According to DES, Saint-Gobain manufactures coated textiles and films using chemical dispersions that contain PFOA and other PFAS.
“The official close date of the facility will be based on the time necessary to fulfill existing contracts, and we expect the wind down process to continue into 2024,” the company said. The closure will impact 164 employees with the earliest layoffs effective Oct. 31.
Reactions to closure announcement
PFAS “forever” chemicals have been linked to increased cancer risk and negative reproductive outcomes, among other health issues. The state published a report in 2021 that found elevated rates of kidney and renal pelvis cancer in Merrimack.
“As a result of Saint-Gobain’s tenancy here, citizens have paid and will continue to pay a huge price, even after it finally closes its doors,” said Merrimack Rep. Nancy Murphy, a Democrat.
Rep. Wendy Thomas, who has attributed her cancer diagnosis to PFAS exposure, had a message for Saint-Gobain on Wednesday: “Don’t let Merrimack’s door hit you on the way out.”
“It’s just incredible,” she said of the closure. “It’s taken a village. We’ve worked so hard to just get acknowledgement and stop this. The thing now, though, is we need to make sure there are protections in place so they are held accountable for all remediation.”
Thomas, a Democrat, said she and other lawmakers will convene to discuss what related legislation they could file this upcoming session.
“It’s too late for so many people in Merrimack,” Thomas said. “It’s too late for me and my husband. My next door neighbor has stage 4 metastatic cancer. My neighbor across the street has died of kidney cancer. It’s too late for us. But this is going to ensure that our kids and our kids’ kids have a healthier future.”
Laurene Allen, a co-founder of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water who serves on the state PFAS Commission, was celebrating the announcement while also looking at the long road ahead regarding remediation. The closing of the facility doesn’t do away with legacy pollution on the site and in nearby towns, she said.
“The voices of this community, we did this,” Allen said in an interview. “The work and the effort and not giving up and being persistent and keeping this on the radar.”
She continued, “While this is great news and everyone in this town is going to be celebrating big time, it also gives me pause and makes me feel mad and sad and really emotional, because I just think of the people. Families who have already had health issues and challenges, they’re having more and more. It’s horrible.”
Allen said she will continue to fight for Saint-Gobain to fund health studies in the area. In March, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled against a group of Merrimack area residents who wanted Saint-Gobain to pay for medical monitoring and testing costs related to their PFAS exposure.
Merrimack Republican state representatives, consisting of House Majority Whip Jeanine Notter, and Reps. Bill Boyd, Robert Healey, Tim McGough, and Maureen Mooney, released a statement saying their focus is now “redoubled.” That means addressing the continued environmental cleanup, assisting displaced workers, and ensuring Saint-Gobain is held accountable past current agreements to filter wells until 2025, they said.
Rep. Rosemarie Rung, a Merrimack Democrat, called on Gov. Chris Sununu to “step up” to ensure Saint-Gobain does not “leave town without a fund in place to clean up the mess they are leaving.”
Responding to Saint-Gobain’s announcement, Sununu took a different angle: the tax and employment impacts.
“New Hampshire stands ready to assist employees affected by the facility’s closure,” he said in a statement. “As a large employer and taxpayer, the impact of the closure will be felt in many areas of the local community, but rest assured all remediation measures will continue pursuant to applicable laws and court orders.”
This article originally appeared on New Hampshire Bulletin and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.