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Cornish Elementary School is one of many properties dealing with ‘forever chemicals’ now

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2022 6:15:16 AM
Modified: 4/9/2022 6:14:04 AM

CORNISH — Students at the Cornish Elementary School get their drinking water from 5-gallon jugs, and the sinks where they wash their hands have signs warning not to drink the contaminated water from the tap.

Last summer, the school administrators learned that testing showed the school’s water surpassed the state’s threshold for a toxic chemical known as PFOA. Now the town and state Department of Environmental Services, known as NHDES, are in the early stages of identifying possible sources of the contamination and securing a long-term source of clean drinking water.

“I am hoping that we are good to go by the start of next school year,” Superintendent Cory LeClair said.

So far, digging a new well appears to be the best remediation option.

“You have to make sure that you do it well, because the safety of the people in your care rely on that,” LeClair said.

The school is grappling with a class of pollutants that more and more communities are finding in their water even as scientific research has yet to delineate their full risks.

PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is one of thousands in a class of chemicals known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.” They persist in the environment, and accumulate in soil, water and the human body. Measured in parts per trillion, they are potentially dangerous at such low concentrations that they are difficult to even detect.

Studies have found that PFOA is present at low levels in almost everyone’s blood, according to the American Cancer Society. The Environmental Protection Agency does not officially classify the chemical as carcinogenic, although it has warned that multiple studies on lab animals amounted to “suggestive evidence of carcinogenicity.”

At the Cornish Elementary School, the well’s PFOA levels were just below the state’s 12.0 ppt threshold at 11.8 ppt in December 2020. In March 2021, PFOA climbed to 24.8 ppt. The school only learned about the contamination the following summer after June tests showed PFOA levels at 20.7 ppt.

(The testing company did not immediately tell the school because the well would not be in legal violation until its PFOA levels were, on average, above the state’s “maximum contaminant level” for three quarters. There is no federal maximum. The school is now notified of the results of every single test, LeClair said.)

The school did not wait to be in legal violation to mitigate the contamination, LeClair said. When students returned last fall, they drank only bottled water. Later that fall, the school also installed a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the kitchen for cooking.

But the process of finding the source of contamination, ensuring a clean source of drinking water and securing funding is still in its early stages.

Last September, NHDES asked Cornish to investigate possible ways PFOA could have contaminated the well. “At minimum,” NHDES wrote, it was interested in the historical and current storage of use of PFAS-containing materials. At the school, those could include floor cleaning products, stripping chemicals, waxes and floor polishes.

NHDES also asked the Cornish Fire Department to look into what firefighting foams it uses and stores. The department is near the school’s property, and uphill from its well, NHDES wrote. PFAS contamination in groundwater is not uncommon at or near fire departments because some firefighting foams contain PFAS.

The town needed a 45-day extension to gather the information, and NHDES is still waiting for a response, said Amy Doherty, who supervises the hazardous waste remediation bureau at NHDES.

“It took a little while to get everyone on board,” said Jason Pelchat, who co-owns Monadnock Environmental Consultants, which the school hired. If a source is identified, there will be “point source” treatment, he said.

NHDES will use the town’s review to decide whether there is sufficient information for the agency to conduct an investigation, Doherty said. “Sometimes (the source) can be difficult to track down,” she said.

PFAS: An emerging contaminant

Both New Hampshire and Vermont have sued manufacturers of PFAS including 3M, DuPont and Chemours, a spinoff company linked to DuPont. New Hampshire was the first state in the country to ask for the companies to pay for statewide remediation for contamination of groundwater and surface water and damage to natural resources. New Hampshire alleges that the companies knew, or at the very least should have known, of the dangers of their products for decades and yet failed to warn their customers and continued to manufacture and sell dangerous products. The companies would have to pay for remediation and disposal of PFAS.

“I think you can probably put them (PFAS) in the same category as tobacco, in terms of the scope and scale of the liability that we’re talking about. It’s enough to bankrupt companies,” said Pat Parenteau, a lawyer and a professor at the Vermont Law School.

Meanwhile, he said, researchers and regulators are “years away” from understanding the threat — how fast the chemicals move through the environment, the actual danger to people in terms of the water they drink or even how to efficiently detect PFAS.

“Those are the things that EPA is only now beginning to seriously grapple with,” he said.

The widespread PFAS contamination is a symptom of a larger regulatory problem, he said. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 gave the EPA the authority to regulate chemicals, but the EPA “wasn’t given the resources, the money, the staff, the laboratories to do that kind of what’s called pre-manufacturing assessment.”

The EPA has to prove a chemical is unsafe to block it, Parenteau said. But analyzing even one of the thousands of new chemicals that comes to market in a given year and proving that it is a risk to human health is a daunting, costly task. Europe, in contrast, puts the onus on companies to prove a chemical is safe before it goes to market. The EPA had only ever restricted a handful of chemicals, out of tens of thousands, since the law passed.

More often than not, chemicals go straight to market with no one doing basic laboratory tests to make some educated guesses about whether or not they may harm human health, Parenteau said. PFAS were no exception.

Now, PFAS have become widespread contaminants. “And now we find out, once again, they pose serious risks,” Parenteau said.

On the path to clean drinking water in Cornish

LeClair said that drilling a new bedrock well is the “best long-term solution.” The school has struggled with other contaminants in its dug well (which is much closer to ground level than a bedrock well).

But for now, what path the remediation will take remains unclear.

“Everyone would prefer a new water supply — a new well. It’s fresh, everybody knows it’s clean, no treatment,” said Pelchat, the environmental consultant.

A shallow gravel well, like the current one, has plentiful water but is more susceptible to contaminants such as road salt. A bedrock well has less abundant water but is seen as cleaner, he said.

The final decision will have to depend on testing and scientific analysis, he said. LeClair told the School Board that the total cost may approach $100,000. The well’s cost depends on its depth and whether any filtration will be needed, Pelchat said. So far, no contamination has been found at nearby wells. However, further testing will be needed to ensure that any new well does not also tap into contaminated water.

So far, the school has spent about $14,600 on bottled water, testing and making sure that the kitchen had clean cooking water, LeClair said. She hopes that the state would fund both what the school has already spent as well as the cost of drilling a new well.

“But you never know,” she added.

New Hampshire has a PFAS Remediation Loan Fund, which also includes grant money, for the remediation of PFAS in public water systems.

“If the applicant and project is found to meet all the eligibility requirements, then funding will be awarded as long as there is still available funds to support the program,” said Amy Rousseau, the PFAS Response Administrator at NHDES. As of April 8, approximately 30% of loan funding and approximately 75% of grant funding has already been allocated, she added. It was established in 2020 when Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill that allocated $50 million to the fund.

No matter what, the goal is to establish a clean source of drinking water by the start of the next school year, LeClair said.

“But I’m not sure exactly,” she added. “There are so many different factors.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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