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Saint-Gobain announces closure of Merrimack facility at the center of PFAS controversy

Annie Ropeik
/
NHPR

Saint-Gobain, the French manufacturing company at the center of a years-long controversy over PFAS contamination in the air and water surrounding their Merrimack, New Hampshire facility, has announced they are closing that plant.

The announcement comes less than a week after the facility was approved for a contentious permit that would have allowed the company to operate in Merrimack through 2028.

The company says the closure is part of a restructuring of its Composite Solutions business in the United States, which creates “high-performance, technology-driven materials” including films and fabrics.

“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,” a spokesperson said in a written statement.

Laurene Allen, a longtime advocate with Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, said she’s wanted to see the company’s exit for a long time.

“I’m thrilled they’re going,” she said. “I just want to be sure they’re still accountable for the mess they’ve made and the harm that they’ve caused and the cost that we bear for our health, and also the cost for cleanup and remediation, which is vast.”

Saint-Gobain said it will continue working with state regulators on ongoing environmental investigation and remediation efforts, and will continue providing bottled water and permanent water alternatives for people affected by contamination within the area of its consent decree. The state’s Department of Environmental Services says Saint-Gobain still has a responsibility to do some additional sampling in that area.

The company has agreed to provide alternative drinking water to more than 1,000 properties. Some of the work to connect properties with contaminated well water to municipal water is not slated to begin until 2024.

164 employees will be affected by the closure, the company said. In the statement, Saint-Gobain said they plan to offer “alternative roles and relocation assistance” to eligible employees who want to stay with the company, and will provide support packages to those who do not.

Timeline for closing

It’s unclear how long the company will continue to operate, or when its doors will close entirely.

A Saint-Gobain spokesperson said the official closing date will be based on the time the company needs to fulfill existing contracts, and the process is expected to continue into 2024.

In a notice to the New Hampshire Commission of Labor and the state’s Attorney General, Saint-Gobain says the earliest layoffs will be effective Oct. 31, 2023.

Gov. Chris Sununu said the state “stands ready” to assist affected employees.

“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,” he said in a statement.

Just last week, the company was approved for a five year state operating permit to expand their operations at the Merrimack facility, which a number of environmental groups, state and town officials, as well as residents, have stated the company’s history of industrial pollution should have precluded.

Some locals even requested the state deny the permit, which the state “does not believe” they had “a basis or legal authority to” do, the director of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ Air Division wrote last week. But the company does remain bound by the terms and conditions of the permit, including conducting a stack test in September, according to Mike Wimsatt, who leads the department’s waste management division.

Saint-Gobain says none of their other facilities in North America will close due to this decision, and “the activities we are exiting are related to Merrimack.”

The company has not yet responded to questions about the business goals they’re hoping to achieve with the closure, or the specific activities they are exiting.

The Environmental Protection Agency said they were not aware of Saint-Gobain’s decision to close the Merrimack facility ahead of the announcement.

Saint-Gobain is required to submit a remedial action plan to address contamination on and around the plant property, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Services.

Saint-Gobain and PFAS

Elevated levels of PFAS chemicals – a group of man-made chemicals used in a wide variety of consumer products – were discovered in hundreds of wells around Merrimack in 2016. Saint-Gobain has known about elevated levels in its emissions since at least 2004, and reduced emissions of one PFAS chemical, PFOA, 96% from 2004 levels by 2007.

PFAS chemicals have been used at the Merrimack facility, which was bought by Saint-Gobain in 2002 and owned previously by Chemfab, since at least 1986, according to the Department of Environmental Services.

Those chemicals are used to make things water and oil resistant; Saint-Gobain used PFAS to make fabrics that are fire and chemical-resistant for use in biohazard suits and shelters, as well as for construction materials.

PFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals,” because they are very persistent in the environment.

They’ve been linked to a variety of health concerns, including certain kinds of cancer, decreased antibody response, high cholesterol, and decreased growth in infants and fetuses.

After the water contamination was discovered, the company began providing bottled water and alternative drinking water to properties within an area designated within a consent decree with the state of New Hampshire.

Saint-Gobain has faced multiple lawsuits over the contamination, including a proposed class action suit for residents who have been exposed.

In 2021, Saint-Gobain unveiled a system to treat its air emissions, burning off the PFAS chemicals. It was a $5.3 million dollar project, and the first time the company had used that technology to treat PFAS in their facilities.

But calls from community advocates and local lawmakers for the facility to close continued, as that system was called into question when state regulators sent the company a letter of deficiency regarding a bypass stack, which allowed those emissions to be released directly into the air, instead of burned off. The company said it was a necessary safety feature.

Moving forward in Merrimack

Merrimack town manager, Paul Micali, said he was not expecting the closure, but will work to ensure the company continues its commitment to providing clean drinking water for people affected by the contamination.

“I'm just hoping that they will honor their commitments to the town and the residents of Merrimack, and we'll go from there and move forward with this and try to put this behind us and get everybody their due,” he said.

He said the town is ready to support workers who are laid off as the plant closes. Employees can reach out to the town’s welfare department, he said, which is prepared to respond.

Micali also said the plant’s closure would have an impact on the town’s tax revenue, but said the town has sufficient resources and reserves, as well as other projects, like new businesses and apartment complexes, moving forward that can mitigate the impact.

“Hopefully, we won’t see a big dip or rise in our tax rate,” he said.

Nancy Murphy, a state representative and Merrimack citizen who has been an outspoken critic of the company, said her community will continue feeling the effects of the facility, even after it closes its doors.

“We have paid to filter the drinking water in our homes; we have paid to filter the public wells in our town; we have paid to filter the drinking water in our schools,” she said. “And we are paying for the contamination of our air, water, and soil with our compromised health.”

Murphy also called on Granite Staters to consider offering employment to the workers affected by the plant’s closure.

“Leaving town after having already inflicted so much harm, never having been held truly responsible for the full extent of what it has done, is the easy way out for Saint-Gobain,” she said.

Todd Bookman contributed reporting for this story.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
Adriana (she/they) was a news intern in the summer of 2023, reporting on environment, energy and climate news as part of By Degrees. They graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in June 2023.