Toxic Chemical Enters Private Wells in North Bennington

By Harry Cramer

Last Wednesday, March 9, Governor Shumlin visited North Bennington to hold a town hall style meeting with residents and discuss the ongoing water contamination crisis. Shumlin announced that water in the Bennington area had been contaminated by a carcinogen known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and assured residents that his administration would make fighting the contamination a top priority.

“We are not going to desert you,” Shumlin told the concerned onlookers. “We’re going to make sure that we not only get through the short-term challenges figuring out how we get clean water to folks on a permanent basis, not just the stuff for trucking in, then figure out how we hold whoever did this accountable.”

The spill can be traced back to a Chemfab factory, which was acquired by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in 2000, and shut down just two years later. Saint Gobain is currently embroiled in a similar PFOA contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls, New York, for which it has been fighting a class-action lawsuit since September of 2015. The lawsuit, spearheaded by the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg, will now include evidence from North Bennington.

In the past, PFOA had a variety of commercial uses, but was phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency due to its carcinogenic qualities. At the Chemfab factory in North Bennington, it was used to apply protective coatings onto fabric.

Saint-Gobain released the following statement following the PFOA incident: “We understand that tests commissioned by the Department of Environmental Conservation showed no detection of PFOA in the public water system for Bennington. The tests did reveal elevated levels in three private wells, as well as two commercial sites. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics has contacted state and local officials, and has offered to fund the provisioning of bottled water and point-of-use filtration systems for these locations, and others that might be affected. We will cooperate with all local, state and federal officials as they investigate and manage this issue.”

A spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain said that the company followed strict environmental protocols during its two years of operation in North Bennington. Officials at both the Department for Environmental Conservation and at the Governor’s Office will focus on testing wells in the surrounding mile and a half diameter.
Chuck Schwer, the Director of the Vermont DEC’s waste management and prevention division, explained that this 1.5 mile diameter was an “educated guess.”

“We aren’t sure exactly of how the chemical was released into the environment,” Schwer explained, “Was it an airbourne-type problem, or was it a release at the factory that just got into groundwater? Looking at the topography, understanding a little bit the properties of the chemical, we developed the mile and a half.”

Getting the results from these tests can take weeks, and it is still unclear as to the full extent of the contamination. Schwer urged residents to reach out to the division if they owned a private well in the area.

“The first step is figuring out exactly how widespread the problem is,” Taylor Dobbs, a reporter for VPR, said in an interview. “Once they know that, then they know … where to target their efforts and who they really need to help.”

One resident living near the plant, Jim Goodine, argued that the smell radiating from it had been a problem since the mid-1970s. Although he had complained to the company that the smell was so bad at times he could not leave his house, his complaints led nowhere.

“You know, I’m a carpenter,” said Goodine in an interview with VPR. “And these were big guys, industrialists with factories in different places, and they show up in Brooks Brother suits, and you feel intimidated by people like that.”

“In hindsight I’m kicking myself as hard as I can … I feel partly responsible that I didn’t go to the state and say, ‘You have to do something here. You have to find out what’s going on.’”

In an effort to better educate the public about the developing situation, both the Vermont Department of Health and the Department for Environmental Conservation (DEC) have launched websites on the situation in North Bennington. Bennington College also recieved a grant from the National Science Foundation Rapid Response to conduct original research on PFOA, and will offer a six-week course on water contamination and how to manage it in the spring and fall. The class will examine the PFOA molecule chemically and how this chemical might move through soil and groundwater.

“We’re going to have to learn something about how [PFOA] becomes introduced to the groundwater and how it migrates through the groundwater, and how you ultimately wind up getting it out and restoring the safe water supply,” said Tim Schroeder, a professor of earth science at Bennington College.

Still, for residents in the North Bennington area, the PFOA crisis is an immediate one. Many residents are still in limbo, awaiting the results of a week-long test for the carcinogen in their private wells. In the meantime, Saint-Gobain has offered to pay for their bottled water.

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