Local Environmental Issue In New Hampshire Gets A 2020 Boost Clean water activists are leveraging their state's crucial position in the presidential primaries to get candidates to take up their issue.

Local Environmental Issue In New Hampshire Gets A 2020 Boost

Local Environmental Issue In New Hampshire Gets A 2020 Boost

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Clean water activists are leveraging their state's crucial position in the presidential primaries to get candidates to take up their issue.


In New Hampshire, a local environmental issue is attracting a lot of attention from people who want to be the nation's president. Democrats are competing to win the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary. And residents are worried about PFAS. That's spelled P-F-A-S. PFAS, which are a group of manmade chemicals, have sparked health fears where they've turned up in drinking water supplies in New Hampshire and nationwide. Here's Annie Ropeik of New Hampshire Public Radio.

ANNIE ROPEIK, BYLINE: Last year, a group of women from the town of Merrimack won seats in New Hampshire's state legislature. They called themselves water warriors, ready to push for reform after a plastics factory in their town polluted their water with PFAS chemicals. Now, just months after the water warriors took office in New Hampshire, they're back on the campaign trail, this time inviting all the candidates for president to come talk with them about PFAS. Many of the Democrats are taking them up on it, like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: If a family doesn't have access to clean water, it changes everything. And this is an issue that is crippling communities all over the country.

ROPEIK: PFAS compounds were long used in products like Teflon and Gore-Tex. They've been linked to health problems and have turned up in water supplies nationwide. These campaign stops have given undecided primary voters, like Suzanne Vail, a chance to demand answers from candidates like Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton.


SUZANNE VAIL: As a president, would you be able to take executive action? What would you be able to do?

SETH MOULTON: Well, there are a lot of different things we could do.

ROPEIK: Moulton says he'd focus on Congress, where PFAS response has lately been gaining steam. Meanwhile, states like New Hampshire are starting to write their own drinking water limits for the chemicals because federal regulation has been slow to evolve. Activists like water warriors and State Representative Nancy Murphy want the next president to push for faster, stricter reform.

NANCY MURPHY: We need advocates, people to listen. And I think this is the first step.

ROPEIK: Murphy says these events aren't just about the campaigns but the people watching them.

MURPHY: Our goal is to educate as many people as we can, raise that awareness. And, you know, by having the presidential candidates come here, that helps do that as well.

ROPEIK: And the months-long haul of the primary means the attention doesn't let up. In the lull between PFAS roundtables came an op-ed from Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren in a local paper laying out her White House plans for the chemicals. It's the latest example of how activists like New Hampshire's water warriors can leverage living in the state that hosts the first presidential primary. And the candidates benefit, too. They get a ready-made audience. They can also connect this New Hampshire issue to broader, national themes. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker held a Facebook Live to talk about his environmental justice platform. It covers PFAS contamination, climate change and more.


CORY BOOKER: Because if you live in a community with contaminants, it affects your health. It affects your economy. It affects your kid's performance at school. It affects everything. And that's why there's this urgency.

ROPEIK: Advocates like Wendy Thomas see those connections, too. She's another one of the New Hampshire state representatives. And her home's private well in the town of Merrimack is tainted with PFAS. But she's just outside the area where the factory that caused the pollution has paid to connect affected families to clean public water. Thomas says she could afford a filtration system, but she knows not every family is so lucky.

WENDY THOMAS: They're being injured because they don't have the money. And that ties back to minimum wage. And it ties back to health care.

ROPEIK: Regardless of who makes it to the general election, Thomas hopes the first-in-the-nation primary campaign will show candidates her issue is one they can run on anywhere. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik in Concord.


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