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Getting serious about PFAS — and paying for it

A bucket brigade of spring water being pulled off store shelves last week was just the start. With strict new limits on the appearance of certain man-made chemicals in the water, New Hampshire and states surrounding it are sure to see ripple effects — some of which will be costly.

There’s no arguing over limits on exposure to substances known as PFAS. Science points to dangerous results for people who ingest the chemicals most often associated with firefighting foam or additives to household products such as carpet. No one wants these chemicals in their water or their bodies.

The trouble in New Hampshire is that the state moved quickly to the head of the class in terms of regulating these chemicals, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, with tighter limits than those in most other states. And it did so without enough planning for the fallout.

What will it mean? Cities and towns in New Hampshire could spend a combined $190 million to bring their drinking water systems, wastewater treatment plants and landfills into compliance with the new rules, according to one state estimate. For some that will just represent the initial cost of quarterly tests to see how they measure up to the new standards. Failing those tests could require new facilities, and the result of those public works projects could be crippling.

Barbara Reid, an adviser to the New Hampshire Municipal Association, told The Associated Press she was “surprised” to learn the new standards, which were more stringent than an earlier version. “Is it the expectation that it will be property taxpayers and water and sewer rate-payers who will be financing the compliance with these standards?” she asked. “Without anything in place, how are we going to pay for this?”

Those are important, timely questions. The new limits take effect in October. The bills will start coming shortly thereafter.

For one company just over the Massachusetts border, they’ve already come due, in a sense. Sampling of bottled water sold in New Hampshire by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection flagged store-brand spring water distributed by Spring Hill Farm, in Haverhill. That water contained higher levels of PFAS than will soon be allowed in New Hampshire’s drinking water — at 19 and 49 parts per trillion for chemicals that are supposed to be measured at 15 and 12 parts per trillion or less. Some stores selling the bottled spring water trucked in from Haverhill, including Market Basket and CVS, removed it from their shelves.

Spring Hill responded by buying a new filtration system that eliminated the chemical from its water, company president Harold Rogers wrote in a letter to customers. Even after that step and a subsequent clean test, owners of the farm decided late last week to close the spring water operation. They expected to lay off 30 people as a result. A PR assistant for the company said “this whole ordeal has been too much for a small, fourth-generation family business, and the owners are steadfast in their decision to close it.”

In his letter, Rogers described PFAS as “clearly a national problem with thousands of contributors.” He’s absolutely right, though restricting the chemical — linked to kidney and liver problems, among other health conditions — is still something of a novelty. Many states don’t even have their own standards for PFAS chemicals but defer to federal recommendations. In Massachusetts, state officials are in the process of coming up with restrictions for PFAS in the drinking water.

A few states that have pursued their own limits, such as New York and Michigan, have done so while setting aside funds to help communities come into compliance, according to reporting by New Hampshire Public Radio.

That’s clearly the course that New Hampshire – and Massachusetts and other states for that matter – must take.

If getting serious about limiting these substances in our water is important — and we agree that it is — so is finding ways to help cities and towns pay to do it.

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