Skip to content

Shaheen bill takes aim at water contamination

By Jeff McMenemy

Portsmouth Herald

PORTSMOUTH — Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are introducing bipartisan legislation aimed at improving federal efforts to identify the public health effects of emerging contaminants, such as the PFCs that contaminated a city-owned well at the former Pease Air Force Base.

Shaheen noted that PFCs and other emerging contaminants – like cyanotoxins – are increasingly being detected in drinking water around the country.

The bill, called the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Act seeks to eliminate “barriers that limit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) response to emerging contaminants,” according to a press release from Shaheen’s office.

The bill also “expedites analysis of these harmful chemicals and provides support and resources to states dealing with the health challenges posed by these potentially harmful materials,” according to the press release.

“I’ve spoken with Granite State families who are worried about their children getting sick from drinking contaminated water, and I share their concerns,” Shaheen said in a statement Monday. “We need to give these families peace of mind, and the federal government needs to be a better partner to New Hampshire communities that are working tirelessly to ensure the safety of their drinking water.”

The bipartisan legislation, which will be formally introduced when the U.S. Senate returns from its Easter recess “bolsters cooperation between the EPA and local communities and also makes agency resources more easily accessible,” Shaheen said.

“It’s time for Democrats and Republicans to come together to protect the health and well-being of the families we represent,” Shaheen said.

The city of Portsmouth closed the Haven well at Pease International Tradeport in May 2014 after the Air Force found levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, 12.5 times higher than what was then the EPA’s provisional health.

The EPA has classified PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, as “contaminants of emerging concern,” because the chemicals can hurt the health of people exposed to them.

Air Force officials believe the PFCs came from firefighting foam used at the former base, which is a Superfund cleanup site.

A state Department of Environmental Services official listed a number of health effects — including cancer — he says are associated with exposure to PFOS and PFOA in drinking water.

Dennis Pinski, health risk assessment supervisor for DES, said “scientific studies have shown exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to be associated with ... developmental effects, decreased bone formation, accelerated puberty in males, reduced newborn body weight, liver toxicity, thyroid effects, immune system effects (and) cancer,” Pinski states in the memo.

The legislation, according to Shaheen, will:

• Direct the EPA to create a program to provide federal support and technical assistance to communities with emerging contaminants in their water.

• “Establish and maintain a comprehensive database of resources to assist states” and water systems testing for contaminants.

Direct the EPA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to convene an interagency working group to “improve federal efforts to identify and respond to emerging contaminants.

• Compel the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop an “interagency federal research strategy to improve the identification, analysis and treatment of emerging contaminants.”

Portsmouth resident Andrea Amico, who led the successful fight to get anyone exposed to PFCs at the Pease International Tradeport to have their blood tested, said she is “really excited to learn about the proposed legislation by Sen. Shaheen focusing on emerging contaminants.”

“I think communities like Pease will benefit from this legislation because it takes a more proactive approach to addressing emerging contaminants,” Amico said Monday.

She is also heartened because she believes the legislation will encourage the EPA to respond more quickly to water contamination around the nation.

“I think that’s helpful because I know in New Hampshire we have frequently heard them (state officials) default to the EPA to set health guidelines,” Amico said. “At Pease we’ve seen the EPA move incredibly slow.”

“Legislation like this help improve the federal process,” she added.

Amico also wants the EPA to set health advisories for all the PFCs, not just PFOS and PFOA and hopes Shaheen’s bill will inspire them to do that.

State Rep. Mindi Messmer, who has sponsored several state bills aimed at safeguarding the state’s water resources, said the legislation is “a good step forward in putting some focus on protecting our drinking water and the health of our people in New Hampshire.”

“It provides funding for accelerating scientific work and defining the appropriate standards for emerging contaminants,” Messmer said Monday. “It puts some money into it, it puts some force behind it.”

Messmer, who is one of the founders of the New Hampshire Safe Water Alliance, added that her group “applauds Sen. Shaheen for introducing legislation that would improve the state and federal response to emerging contaminants.”

“NHSWA was founded to advocate for safe drinking water across New Hampshire where contaminants such as PFCs and 1,4-dioxane threaten the drinking and surface water resources of many cities and towns,” Messmer said. “NHSWA feels that this proactive legislation is a critical step in protecting our drinking water and reducing chronic illness.”

Portman, in a statement Monday, said the legislation will improve federal efforts to identify the health impacts of unregulated contaminants found in our drinking water sources.”