Nashua Telegraph: Leaders talk dirty water at meeting

Tuesday, August 23, 2016
By Tina Forbes

NASHUA - Prompted by a rash of drinking water concerns across the country and New Hampshire over the past year, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., led a forum with federal, state and local experts to address the state's drinking water health and infrastructure.

The forum brought key stakeholders together to help identify a path forward to guarantee needed maintenance to the water infrastructure, Kuster said.

"We have been getting involved in water quality on a number of fronts - obviously Flint, Mich., is first and foremost on our minds. ... but in the course of that, we have learned infrastructure is affecting water quality across New Hampshire," she added, mentioning the recent perfluorooctanoic acid - or PFOA - contamination affecting Litchfield, Merrimack, Bedford and part of Londonderry, which has been attributed to the use of the chemical by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in Merrimack.

From the League of Conservation Voters, Rob Werner called the concerns with drinking water an environmental and public health issue.

"The United States is facing a drinking water crisis resulting from decades of ignoring and underinvesting in our aging water infrastructure and drinking water protections," Werner said.

"The EPA estimates that over $600 billion is needed to meet our drinking and wastewater needs over the next 20 years, yet Congress only appropriates only $2 billion per year," he said, and urged leaders in Congress to act. "So much needs to be done, and we need some real leadership," Werner said, and noted it is more expensive to fix an aging infrastructure than to just invest in water systems in the first place.

Pennichuck Corp. CEO Larry Goodhue said continued investments makes the most sense.

He said Pennichuck, which is drawing 30 million gallons daily from area rivers, has adapted to serve the area despite the current drought.

"The last really significant drought was, from the DES site, in the 2000-01 time frame," he said.

However, Goodhue said Nashua is not seeing a water usage restriction at this time because the system in place is meeting the city's need.

"In 1985, we connected with the Merrimack River as a backup water system," Goodhue said.

The existing system is aging and not necessarily kept up-to-date, Kuster said, and advocated for two legislative initiatives - the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which would invest $20 billion over five years in wastewater infrastructure funding through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability, which would direct the EPA to establish a grant program to eligible water systems for upgrades.

"Both bills will begin to address the problems we face here ... to keep up with the crumbling infrastructure," Kuster said. She added right now New Hampshire has a "D" grade for its infrastructure.

Donald Ware, Pennichuck COO, said the company has a "permitted withdrawal" to use the Merrimack River, and that the company reduces intake from the river depending on environmental factors, such as fish spawning.

Local water customers have reduced their usage over the years to about 137 gallons per day, Ware said, crediting higher-efficiency appliances, but some properties draw upwards of 4,000 gallons per day for outdoor watering.

"They are conserving inside, but outside, people still like their green lawns," he said.

Panelists discussed the short-term and long-term solutions of the PFOA contamination, such as supplying clean water to affected homes, expanding city water systems and the use of filtration systems.

"We really feel the state has been very proactive," said Jane Downing of the Environmental Protection Agency, and praised state and local agencies for the extent of water testing used to identify the PFOA contamination.

Brandon Kernen of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services said that since February, DES has sampled around 600 private wells and found more than 170 over the limit for PFOA.

"At this point, we're looking for a long-term remedy," Kernen said. Delivering bottled water to affected homes is not a permanent solution, he said, and added that Merrimack has had to shut down two of its wells.

While Pennichuck's water supply has not been affected, Goodhue said, they are looking into expanding farther into Litchfield to reach homes with contaminated wells.

Rick Skarinka, of NH DES, said they are also being vigilant on lead contamination in drinking water, especially as it affects children.

"For a zero-to-6 year-old, any lead contamination has an impact on brain development," Skarinka said. "We are actually reaching out to all school districts in the state to test all of their schools - and day cares too."

Kuster agreed with the initiative.

"This is a fine thing for New Hampshire to be first-in-the-nation on: testing water for children," Kuster said.

In the audience at Monday's forum was a handful of city and state officials, including Executive Council candidate Dan Weeks, who has been following the PFOA contamination in New Hampshire since early spring. After the forum, Weeks shared a statement calling on Saint-Gobain to cover the costs of any long-term solution necessary to connect homeowners with contaminated wells to clean water.

"Water is a human right and no one should ever have to go without clean, safe drinking water," Weeks said in his statement. He thanked the company for providing bottled water to affected families, but said more needs to be done.

Elected leaders and the courts "must hold them fully accountable for the damage done to people's health and the environment," Weeks said.