Lessons from the Network: Laurene Allen

Laurene is the founder of Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water. Merrimack Citizen for Clean Water is based in Merrimack, NH and “is an advocacy and information group founded by citizens who saw a need to develop a path to assist our residents, health professionals and community leaders in comprehensively conceptualizing and facilitating the needs of our community by gathering and compiling information and reaching out for additional resources.” 

This interview was conducted on July 1, 2021. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity; the conversation was free flowing and not all questions were asked in the same order as listed below.

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues?

Laurene Allen (LA): My name is Laurene Allen, I’m actually a licensed clinical social worker. I’ve lived in Merrimack, New Hampshire, since 1985, raised a family here. In March of 2016 we learned that our water was contaminated by PFAS chemicals. The predominant one is PFOA, and we have a facility in town, Saint Gobain Performance Plastics, that has been identified as the polluter. They’ve been engaged for many years in manufacturing fabric coating, PTFE, which is Teflon coating, and a lot of [Department of Defense] contracts. Interestingly, they are the same facility that has polluted in Hoosick Falls, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. The state of New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has gone on record saying that the air particulate from the emissions have built up over time and they have found their way down into the groundwater. In this particular area our drinking water is groundwater sourced.  

Our public water consists of six wells and a significant amount of the town and surrounding towns are also private wells, so it’s all groundwater. When we learned of this, as in any community we were like, “What does this mean to us? Could this be the reason that my pet, my husband, my neighbor my child, my spouse… all the health concerns came up for people and what does this mean?” At that point everybody was told “Well, these are emerging contaminants.” Little do we know 20 years ago Minnesota was working with communities such as mine over 3M contamination! 

People just didn’t feel really good about the responses and there were many people who are asking questions that really didn’t get answers that were adequate about a variety of topics, even about exposure and risk reduction. Over the course of that year we thought, “Well, we’ll go to the town and we’ll go to the State and we’ll tell them what we need, and we’ll figure this out.” By the end of that year, it was really clear that any efforts that had been made were going nowhere, and one of the things that people wanted was access to blood tests. We weren’t named as a group, at that point, and by early January 2017 myself and another person said, “Let’s kind of get this a little more formal, let’s name ourselves and let’s do this a little differently and focus on engaging, advocating, educating bringing resources to the state.” So, in January 2017 we formally formed Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water. 

RN: There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, quality, affordability, and safety. Where do you focus your work? Do you primarily work at the local (city/county), state, regional or federal level?

LA: We focus comprehensively everywhere—local, state, and yes, county, state government, the administrative entities, and also on the federal level. And I am also on the leadership team, and one of the original founders of the National PFAS Contamination Coalition which was founded in June of 2017. There was a PFAS conference in Boston at Northeastern University and a lot of us met in a lunch that was hosted by what, at that point, was Toxic Actions that now is Community Actions Works and really looked around at each other and got to talking and we were thinking about the big lobby power industry and how individually we’re all doing this battle, and I was looking around I said, “We need to start something like that.” I said, “How can we?” So, we started tossing around words and came up with the word “coalition.” So, we decided that, together, we would all work for mutual goals and share information on what’s going on at the state level and really start engaging with the allies and environmentalist and all the big groups, the national groups to really push the national agenda.  

In 2018 I went to DC for an education day and had this idea: my federal delegation is absolutely up to speed on this issue, we’ve done a lot of work together and it occurred to me that we see the map across the nation, and we know this is pretty much everywhere. But not everybody’s representative is as informed, and if they’re not, they’re getting their information from industry. It’s only going to be a really skewed story. So [we began to think about getting] Senators and House representatives educated on this issue and I’ve done a lot of outreach to people starting with New England states. If they had residents that could step into this role, great, we work together and if not, contacting them directly in their DC offices and saying, “Hey, this affects your state too, and this is who I am” and giving them some information and telling them some of the stories from across the nation. 

RN: Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water worked to implement House Bill 1264 in New Hampshire in 2020, (which addresses PFAS contamination, set up a Drinking Water Protection Program, and allocated funds, requires insurance to cover blood testing) What was the impetus to develop and implement this policy?

LA: In early 2017 there was a slew of bills… HB 485 directed the Department of Environmental Services to review the science and create MCLs based on the most protective health science, the most rigorous to the most vulnerable populations. So that was a directive, and there were a couple other bills done at that time about blood tests and monitoring bills, and those failed. The Committee that heard these bills originally was giving a lot of opposition and the committee was chaired by a Rep from my own town. New Hampshire has a lot of 70-something male reps, right? They’re very heavily lobbied. The Chair of that committee was a Rep from our town,  very well connected, who got a letter from American First Prosperity, with an A+ rating for his work on water issues. He was obstructing, amending, and blocking progress in this area, so all his information was coming from his sources… 

That bill passed. And that took a lot of work and a lot of engagement and a lot of turning out the people in public commentary. And then the state started on this MCL process where we worked together, we gave science submissions, we asked for scientists and academics from across the nation that we knew to submit things and they came out with these numbers that were too high, originally, like 38 ppt for PFOA. And then we were educated enough to push back, so at this next public hearing to finalize it over, [we said] “you’re using the critical endpoints that are not the most critical endpoint: the most critical is memory tissue and immune for this, and so we gave them a slew [of information] and we pushed, and we had papers prepared and we did a lot and then we said, “Gee you know, did you look at the [research] from Minnesota?” They had hired a toxicologist at that point, who was new to the state government, so he was very pure [laughs]. He said, “Yep that’s absolutely it, we have justification. So, they use that and all of a sudden it was at 12 ppt. We were like, “Yes!” So, they incorporated that into rulemaking. The next day the state of New Hampshire was sued by 3M. And 3M contested this based on several things. One was the science. Two was they said there wasn’t adequate public input at the final stage. There was. The judge threw that out, the judge upheld that the science was sound.  

They said there wasn’t a fully prepared cost benefit analysis. On that one, the judge said to the state, “well, based on the definition here, you’re going to have to go back and do that.” What had happened in the process of the bill, when the bill was finally in the stage of passing, the Reps at that time, amended that it would be tied to a cost benefit analysis and they added in these little phrases that, whether people caught or not, they didn’t realize the repercussions. They wrote this other little bill that nobody really knew about, which redefined the cost benefit analysis for New Hampshire and made it very rigorous. So, in fact, they knew the public outcry was there, but they delivered a win to industry by leaving a loophole for a lawsuit. 

The lawsuit happens, the MCLs are stayed, and now we were in this process of, “Oh great, now what?” The New Hampshire House and Senate last year came up with the bill that you’re referring to, and what they did is they pulled together an omnibus bill of some freestanding bills over insurance payments for blood tests and the other things… they put them all in there, so they reinstated the MCLS that were done, that the State had done the science on and we had all worked on. And they just enacted it, as opposed to what the first bill did. The first bill had DES do their job. They were directed to do it, and it was in their hands. What this did is set the regulations from New Hampshire Senate and House, and they just said, “Boom, this is the law of the land.” So, DES couldn’t be sued and that was that.  

Now [it was time for] more testing over the area. Originally, they said 65 square miles are in this consent area but that’s the only area that Saint Gobain has agreed to, and right over that line you see slews of contaminated wells, it goes on and on and on, way more than that. Now they have to do extended testing, all these well owners that were told a few years ago, “Oh, your well tested 30 ppt for PFOA, you’re okay.” People were told they were safe, the federal health advisory is 70 [ppt] so now they go back and start retesting these wells and they’re like, “Oh, you need bottled water.” People are like, “You told me that this was safe to drink four or five years ago, and now you’re telling me it’s not safe to drink.” People are ripping mad at this point and I don’t blame them. So that bill was complex, it was an outcome of other bills, in particular the MCLs that were stayed.  

The public hearings and the public input, and again, making sure Reps who don’t live in this area, and some of them in this area, we voted out some of those old Reps big time… We have eight seats in Merrimack. But the New Hampshire GOP was livid that they had lost seats in this town, because they had pretty much dominated. We elected in three women that were from Citizens for Clean Water. And it wasn’t like we’re using water issues for political gains, as some people posed, they had worked on this exclusively and saw that there’s work they could do so they ran for office, all together, as water warriors. They were in office, and they were targeted big time last fall and voted out. So now we have one Democrat Rep and seven Republicans, and out of the Republican Reps two of them, they’re pretty committed to this issue, and they also know that they campaigned on it.  

They also know that eyes are upon them, and they best deliver. Where they can come in handy now is the engagement that we’re doing. Some people in town are just livid, “they’re disrespecting the work that was done and they’re starting from square one, and their party is against all this stuff anyways.” 

I take a different approach, and I say, “Well you know what? Who better than to engage and educate the party that won’t listen to you if you’re on the other side of the aisle? Right? Let’s do more and more work.” I have a great relationship with them. 

RN: Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water describes itself as an advocacy and information sharing organization. How did you build support and outreach in New Hampshire? And is this just all learning as you go? What, in terms of how you do your outreach and education, are there tools or other organizations that you’ve been able to rely on or has this been a lot of self-taught…

LA: For myself as a social worker, what’s interesting is way back in the beginning of my career, outreach and community engagement as part of my mission, my code of ethics and work that I’ve done, be it on grants or be it on identifying community needs, and working collaboratively. I’ve done that work so that was a really good fit for me, I think that skill set in really looking at when people gather what they call “stakeholders”, they’re usually formal groups, they usually don’t include the resident perspective. Boosting up the voices of people who, when you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re getting, you’re not just going to say, “Oh, we’ll just sit around for years until they figure this out.” You’re going to go out and get that information for yourself and engage university people, in science and academics, and the more you realize there is information out there, then you get quite angry and then you need to educate your electives to say, “Hey! There’s all this information that’s out there.” Give them packet after packet. I think, for a lot of residents, we’ve become real experts, that’s the phrase that you hear and it’s absolutely non-negotiable. If you look around and in many communities there’s a small group of people who often say, “Well, who else is going to do this?”  

And for me it really was born by the outrage of the first community meeting back in 2016. There was person after person who went up to a microphone, older people and many New Englanders that—they don’t talk about their business publicly—and they were sharing stories of health conditions of all ages, younger ages and my clinical antenna was up and I thought, “Something is not right here, people are sick.” We can’t say they do get sick and sometimes we don’t know why, but the patterns were really astonishing me, to the point that I went out and collected health data in 2017 and was able to get a scientist to pair with me, which ended up published and peer reviewed. It barely scratches the surface, I wish it could be a lot more comprehensive, the point of that was really to give the rationale to be studied as a community.  There are many communities that are looking at a national study right now. There are communities, mostly DOD, where the focus is on the legacy chemicals and past contamination. We are an active, ongoing site, our polluter is in business, they haven’t changed their practices, what they do is legal, it’s federally permitted, they can discharge into waterways. It’s changing, we have high hopes for this year but combating this is a real head game. It’s complicated and you have to approach it on so many levels. 

When there is anything that’s going through the legislative process it goes originally to a committee. What’s amazing now is we have this super educated community. I can send out emails and Facebook group and people will write letters and they will go on there and give their testimony and what’s really phenomenal about it at this point is—I don’t use Action Network, I don’t [say], “Here’s the letter that you write, sign your name and write it.” Because they get so many of those, they delete them, they don’t read those. They are writing their own letter and a few years ago people used to be like, “Well, what do I say?” and I say, “You know the talking points.” They were nervous about it so we’d review the basic bullets of what’s there and say, “What’s your story, and what are your concerns, and why do you care about this?” 

People, bit by bit—social workers are very client centered, strength-based type folks. Help people find their voices. Now people don’t even ask, they write their letters, they usually send me a copy (they think I must keep a library of all this stuff and I kind of do, my Google Drive is asking for more storage), so it’s amazing. I’m so proud of people, that they’re writing these phenomenal letters that aren’t just like “you need to do this because it’s the right thing” … they are citing science, they are talking policy, and they’re doing it in a way that the Reps are reading and it’s working. Educated constituents, they know that the constituents are educated, better educated than most of the Reps and they know that that’s also a political threat because in their mind they lost seats because of this issue so they’re more motivated to pay attention. Then the bills get amended or the new bills, this year they’re retained in committee… it’s not so simple with the GOP because if industry doesn’t want a bio monitoring bill, it’s the committee recommends it based on everything that they read and heard and then somehow it gets retained in committee, which sometimes means left in the graveyard to die. Our governor is very business friendly; this is the “New Hampshire advantage”, business rules in New Hampshire as is the case in many other states. 

RN: Are there other organizations that you partnered and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work did you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together?  

LA: The Merrimack Village District is our water municipality and basically, we have the Merrimack town council in the village district. There are five Commissioners that are elected residents. Three of our dads that were very active in this are now water Commissioners and they’ve updated a lot of things. In the beginning, when we started, the water Commissioners were very old, they’d been there forever and their goal was the cheapest water bill possible and follow the federal laws and no more. New Hampshire deferred to federal and never a step more. Engaging with them and making them realize that I’m not going to target them, I’m not going to make them the bad guy. I view them as a victim too. They definitely got taken advantage of by Saint Gobain, that the State encouraged them to—the State made the demands that we wanted originally, then the state encouraged them to go into a mediation process which was off record, behind closed doors, they couldn’t talk about it. In the end, after two years, the deal they got is a joke. In the beginning, I used to go to their meetings and say, “Please do me a favor when you talk about the water, don’t say the water is safe. Because that’s going to come back to bite you because I know the science is there. Say we are following the law and we’re taking this seriously and it’s a work in progress, and say whatever you want about all the technicalities of water, which is complex.” I said, “Please don’t say the water is safe, you will be sued and those words will come back to haunt you.” We have a great relationship, the office manager there in the beginning was a little “hmmhmm” with me because there were people in town saying, “Oh, those fear mongering ladies, they think everything is political.” I’m pretty real and I have a lot of trust with them. Town council members, same thing in the beginning, first time I went to the town council to tell them about the group I was lectured for 45 minutes.  

“Don’t say the word contamination, it’s inflammatory language”, this one old guy said to me. And I said, “Gee you know what? I’m really sorry. I don’t like that word; I love this community and we’re an EP designated contamination site! On the DES site, it says “PFAs contamination investigation”, two days later, the site was changed and it said, “investigation into the presence of polyfluoroalkyl substances.” I was like, okay, they got a direct line. But that gave me a hint. I thought, “Wow that guy who was so nasty to me, I have to work hard to engage him and get a relationship with him because, clearly, he could make a call and get his ask and I can’t get my ask.” So, we need to partner together. Inviting people to coffee, coffee after coffee, giving them packets, it took a couple years before they finally acknowledged that this is a problem. And I knew what we had to work towards is: this is going to cost money here, and it’s going to cost money to the wastewater facility and when the MCLs are going, this is going to be a problem for the town. Giving them data from the site investigation—they were getting these updates from the state that were very generic and they were like, “Oh OK” and we asked, “where are you getting this information?” I [gave information from] DES One Stop. The documents are there. So, I’d get this whole report over from Golder and Associates with all the onsite data and I pulled out the first cover sheets, so they knew where it came from. I’d do data table pages and synopsis and I’d highlight what I wanted them to see and then I’d hand it out and give it to them. In the beginning, they were like, “Oh, thank you”, and they just put in a pile but sooner or later, it just takes one person to read it, and then the light came on and then three years into this I hear a town councilor saying, “on site, they have numbers as high as 56,000 parts per trillion!” Those numbers were there from day one. In the beginning it was downplayed because they said, “Well what’s in the site, in the area, isn’t necessarily in your water.” … There are politics behind it.  

There’s a Merrimack River Watershed Council down in Massachusetts and at one point, maybe in early 2018, it occurs to me one day that they do great work and are conservation people.  All of a sudden, I thought, “What goes into the river here goes there, so let’s do some engagement.” I met with the President of that board and he had a PhD student intern. And he sat with us and asked so many questions—it was forever. And then another meeting… Someone did a documentary on the river and they included PFAS in the river, the health of the river because of all that work and education. Then I got their Rep engaged from that area partnering with Representative Pappas who’s doing great work on this issue and Representative Lori Trahan and connected them, they were both freshmen Reps at the time, mad crazy smart and boom, they said “great.” Everybody that’s very promising, they can take it from there. You get them started and then you can just know of each other and partner when you need to, but they can do their own thing. The Watershed Council and the conservation folks. We know our whole environment is contaminated. We have honey, maple syrup, fish, eggs, everything in town, but [in] New Hampshire it’s like, oh you can’t say anything that could make anybody look bad or threaten their way of life or impact their finances, which is valid. It’s really tricky. Giving people information, but not pointing the finger. I won’t buy our local honey and maple syrup anymore and gardens on the other side of the river in Litchfield, the stacks; I know that land is heavily contaminated. That farmer there did not want to connect to a clean water source, he was ripping that he didn’t want to have to pay water bills and he thinks it’s fine because it suits his purpose: it’s heavily contaminated soil. 

 And then, what does the state say when you look at that? Well, there are no real soil standards for food. And you push, push, push. Well, there are soil context standards under OSHA for workers (that they don’t follow). Well, are those too high? Of course. Our food chain, our wastewater facility that makes compost that goes out all over New England, yikes! Class A food grade. How can that be?  

There’s lots of partnering. Anybody [laughs] that can, everybody knows of us in this area, and I think even lots of people across the country know that we’ve really worked hard to engage in and get things done. Working together collaboratively, that’s the key. 

RN: Passing a bill or resolution is a big accomplishment, but we know it isn’t the end of the story. Can you describe what implementation has looked like so far? Are you continuing to work with affected communities and/or state agencies?

LA: Follow up is a key for everybody, when something’s passed, you cannot say, “My job here is done I’m getting on with my life.” As a matter of fact, I’ll tell you something about getting on with your life. I was on a call a couple months ago with Representative Ann Kuster’s staff and I talked to them all about certain legislation that’s going through DC right now, it’s time for it to go and pass and I was talking about timeframes and how long we’ve been talking and how well we know each other. Her staff is kind of late 30s. A real hip staff, I really liked them and they’re fun. I thought, “I’m going to have a little fun with this.” We’re about done and I said, “You know what, there’s a date I want you to remember.” And they all were writing things down there, like, what date is that? I dramatic pause and I said, “August 6, 2022. You know what date that is?” And they’re thinking, they say no, and I said, “That’s my 60th birthday.” I said, “You’re on notice, we need to get this done, I need to rest.” They laughed so hard because they’re all like my kids’ age. But they’ll remember that. How do you send that message? When people are working in that capacity in administrative, bureaucratic type things, what do you hear from them? These things take time. But implementation, you know a bill is only as good as its implementation. 

An example of that: one is New Hampshire was one of the first states to pass the AFFF foam; the goal and the intent of the bill was to gather all the foam and to store it, because it’s inert you can store it safely, until such a time that a safe disposal method is known. And we’re not really there yet, the research and development are in universities, but that doesn’t get integrated necessarily into the higher levels. Industry has a hand in that too, and who can make money on it, and all of that. Basically, they were to gather it up and store it. And then that was it. We were like, yes, no more PFAS foam. What happened is, it was quiet all last year and everybody blames everything on Covid, right? I’m like, “You’re still doing your jobs and you have administrative jobs, nothing changed for you.” In January, they had to do an annual report to the New Hampshire Senate, and I read it and was just outraged.  What they did in the final version of the bill, they made these baby amendments that slipped in. Instead of the state of New Hampshire “shall” they changed it to the state of New Hampshire “may”. They wiggle the language, they soften it just a little, so it’s the same bill but it’s not a mandate. They sent out notices to everybody that they knew that had the foam, fire stations and airports and whoever the heck else. They sent it out, they do a listing, so they have a listing of all the places that they know, then they look at how many people sent it in and how much they sent in. They inventoried it, categorized it, and then the places that didn’t answer, “Oh well.” Because there are places who are going to go, “We paid for this, we’re not giving it up, it’s fine”, and kept it. 

They don’t really care what they’re doing to the world… The percentage that was gathered is not what it should be, it was maybe two thirds. That’s good, they made some progress, and now what? 

Now we’re in a different place. New Hampshire fought really hard in the fall and now we have the Governor, the Executive Council, the Senate and the House all GOP controlled. They believe in, ‘give the information and guide people, if they want to do it great if they don’t, everybody will just do the right thing,’ and then they turn their face the other way, nobody is going to regulate this. So that was a very poor implementation.  

The other piece is the MCLs. Any public water supplier of any type has to test and report to the state, and they have to test for four consecutive quarters. At the end of four consecutive quarters, they have to average and figure it out. If they exceed it, they then have to submit a plan for remediation, then they have another year to start implementing that because of the fiscal inputting in the budget. You can still serve people the contaminated water for two, three years and when the MCLs were stayed they said the quarterly testing is voluntary. They knew our district, every well was over the New Hampshire MCLs, not all over the federal MCLs. They kept doing the quarterly testing. We had also been proactive as a community and worked really hard, [hoping] that we would have accountability someday and some type of reimbursement pay for all of our wells to be remediated. 

Because we did so much work with the public that the public decided that they don’t want to drink any of this in their water. For a cheap state and a cheap community who begrudges every tax bill, that was astonishing, because it means everybody’s water bills are going to go up. Implementation of this one, they go forward with the quarterly testing. By the end of this year, they’ll have done all the quarters and then next year they’ll have to go from there. Insurance companies, they get the word and that’s been okay. People can get that covered with a doctor’s order. The question is knowing the lab and the sensitivity. 

There are other bills that are around, they’ve been kind of stalled out. The people who are in power and behind the scenes, they know what they’re doing, they’ve been doing this for a long, long time. You follow up, you follow up, you follow up. It gets signed in. How’s this going to play out? What can we expect next? We write letters, we talk to the people in the state continually. I can call any of them up in different divisions and they will answer the questions, but it takes too long. This is just risk reduction. What is not happening, if every state took this seriously and really took risk reduction communication, and that means you put that information out there. There’s a way that they can do that without pointing the finger at anybody. 

And then they can leave it in the hands of people, because the citizens are doing the risk reduction communication. That’s the issue. That’s the issue right there.

RN: What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?

LA: What I’ve done here in this community is I’ve made a point to engage all, to make this as bipartisan and focused on the issue as possible. That’s difficult in New Hampshire, the people take their politics quite seriously here. But I think the skills that I have—one of my specialties is complex family—so I don’t really think that the community may realize, but I think that skill set has come in handy for bringing together people who would not be sitting together. And I know Senator Shaheen’s office has been happy because they see that working together is the way to get things done, and we know in the national and local and state-to-state that’s not always possible. The people stuff is more tiring than the issue, but the issue is very stressful. It’s very stressful; how do we heal; how do we move forward? Cleaning up your water and protecting yourself, well that’s great, but there’s way more to it than that. 

RN: What are the major campaigns or policy priorities that you’re currently working on? What kind of strategies are you using to advance your goals?

LA: The state has a bio monitoring bill retained in committee and a restitution bill for our public water to really create more accountability for the polluter. Those are caught up and retained in committee, which usually means the kiss of death. So, we’re following up on those. We’d love to enact more of a class approach like Massachusetts. Maine just went there and Vermont, with the 20 PPT cap, like Massachusetts has the six PFAS, and what they’ll do is as they have the toxicological support that they can justify, they will add them in, but this concept of capping at 20 is a much better way to go, it really is. Because if we have four and they’re going to review the science and see if anything changes in five years, the C4-C7s are coming at us here. The current formula is that, locally, it’s really looking at costs, polluter accountability, and bettering what we have because PFBA, PFBS, different ones we have are higher in our water than three of the four that we have regulated. That is a loophole.  

On the federal level we’ve been doing a lot of work on loopholes that are there, one is the pre-manufacturing notice. In the turry [?] discharging which is reporting as of this July what’s supposed to come out of stacks, federally. The issue there is, we pushed really hard and did some work there, but if a company such as Saint Gobain—their product is made in North Carolina at Chemours. If you look at what they have in their rivers and what they test for there—those numbers aren’t what we hear elsewhere, or those names or those acronyms. What’s made there is used here, we need to put together their panel and our panel because they haven’t paid attention to our panel. They have been doing that, more recently in the last year and it’s such a shell game. So basically, Chemours is making their formulation and it’s called CBI—it’s confidential business information—so the CBI loophole, that’s it. It doesn’t get listed in the toxic release inventory, it doesn’t get listed in the pre-manufacturing, and then they talk about all these different analects, including PFOA which is voluntarily phased out. 

So why is it increasing in number on site? It’s not about offsite. It’s because the precursor in the breakdown, and when you cook in these ovens and up through the stacks, boom, voila! It’s PFOA. It’s even in their dip pans, the numbers are very, very high. 

And they just say, “Oh, we’re not using it.” So, what comes in the door and what’s in that formulation? Either they’re lying and they’re getting it from China, but we know they’re getting stuff from North Carolina. It’s that chemical mess, what we’re really looking at is making sure federally that this really does stop the source. We need the source stopped, we need polluter accountability, we need them to pay for what they caused, and we need proper regulation, and we need money for communities who are—we hear this phrase forever chemicals—you don’t just filter this stuff and that’s it. These filters and all the granulated activated carbon—where’s it going? Oh, an incinerator? It’s going to pollute somewhere else! We need better solutions, we should not be paying for what we didn’t cause and there are lots of water bills going through right now, and the House passed a year ago, some great stuff. It went to the Senate, and McConnell kept it in the pile. 

In the collaborative work, we’re also working with the National Academy of Sciences Engineering and Medicine. They are working on physician guidance and working with lots of entities to create physician guidance documents. Silent Spring has just put one out really, really good and really giving that feedback. Reading drafts, giving feedback on so much stuff. NRDC is doing some great work that we’re working on with testing and trying to do class regulation, so we have all kinds of policy stuff going on. 

RN: Ending on a positive note, as you continue your work, can you just tell me what you feel is your biggest accomplishment to date, or what aspect of your work you’re most proud of?

LA: I would step back and not claim something as a great accomplishment of state MCLs. For a state like New Hampshire to do something like that is immense. But I think what I would say, personally, the greatest accomplishment, from my point of view, is engaging people, building an army standing shoulder to shoulder with people from Alaska, Michigan, Arizona, Delaware, Florida. This is a patchwork across the nation, we should not have, in one state, we have a regulation—in the beginning of this we said, “the water that we’re drinking here would not be legal in New Jersey.” New Jersey isn’t what we think of when we think of a clean pristine state, we think of New Hampshire.

Building that camaraderie, building that support network and strength, and standing shoulder to shoulder, and knowing that there are all these people out there who are very wounded. We’re very, very wounded, but we’re strong and I don’t think any of us could have survived this if it wasn’t for each other. That to me is the biggest accomplishment. We can stand together and be visible and all the academic and science and river keepers and all these amazing people who have been doing the work that they’re doing. Together, we have the strength that is just amazing. It’s hard, it’s really painful, but I think that is the biggest accomplishment, building people power. I’m almost teary over that. Caught me by surprise because I’m thinking about faces and battles in health issues that people endure, and what they fight, in their cancers and diagnoses prior to this and during this and family members that they’ve lost…

That’s important, that’s the only way people are going to survive, is knowing that there are people out there who got your back, and we know it. People in western Mass, if something’s going on, and I just go, ”Whoop, I spot a little bit of difference and, you okay? What’s going on?” We’re there to pick each other up when somebody is fading. 

So that is the biggest accomplishment. I’m doing some work with ATSDR, a stress and resiliency project and am speaking at a conference in October about just that. The stress and resiliency and the emotional well-being of people, not just in communities, but people like myself who do this work, who’ll think that they can do this work, because they do tough work, but the impact to yourself, it is really hard. In my work your self-care is everything, but in this work, it’s never going to end. We are all forever altered, life is never the same again. So that’s a different one—we get some dark humor going big time, so luckily, we have those bad guys to kind of target, too, that helps [laughs].