2017 saw progress on PFOA issues in Bennington

Gov. Phil Scott, center, Bennington area lawmakers and other officials toast the installation in late 2017 of a section of municipal water line to address PFOA contamination of local wells. The year began with many questions. File photo by Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner
BENNINGTON — The past year was one in which some of the trauma began to subside for residents whose wells and yards were found in 2016 to be contaminated with PFOA.
Two meetings in North Bennington early in 2017 illustrated the mood at that time. These sessions included one of the periodic updates from state officials on the perfluorooctanoic acid contamination. The other was a public hearing featuring testimony on the widespread local impacts.
Officials had traced the pollution to stack emissions from former ChemFab Corp. plants that spread PFOA over a wide area, where it worked into the groundwater.
On Jan. 26, health experts presented the results of blood testing of residents for PFOA levels. Meanwhile, locals pressed state environmental officials on whether the new administration of Gov. Phil Scott would be as aggressive as the former Shumlin administration in pursuing funding from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics to provide clean drinking water to the affected properties.
Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation officials repeated that they and the attorney general’s office were continuing to negotiate a settlement with Saint-Gobain, which acquired ChemFab in 2000. The international firm moved the local fabric coating operations to New Hampshire in 2002, but PFOA remained in soil and groundwater.
A salient point health officials made at the meeting was that “there’s some uncertainty” concerning the meaning of testing for PFOA, which has been linked to certain cancers, high blood pressure and colitis. What blood level can be said to cause one or more of the diseases has yet to be fully determined and will require more testing, they said.
But many residents knew they had PFOA in their blood, primarily acquired, health experts said, through drinking contaminated well water.
The levels found in the blood of Bennington residents who were tested averaged 10 micrograms per liter, health officials said, compared with the national average of 2.1 micrograms per liter. Some individual blood levels were much higher.
In addition, health officials stressed that studies have shown PFOA in the blood declines slowly — dropping by about half roughly every two to four years.
The meeting held less than a week later was a hearing of the Vermont Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, of which Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, serves as vice chairman. The hearing sought input on legislation sponsored by Campion and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, that would hold any party releasing PFOA into the atmosphere liable for costs of extending municipal water service to contaminated properties.
The state was engaged in negotiations with Saint-Gobain over the estimated $30 million cost of extending municipal water lines to the more than 300 properties with contaminated water. If no agreement could be reached, officials said, the state would go to court to recoup the cost of water line extensions and other expenses related to dealing with the pollution.
The bill did pass the Legislature, and Scott signed it in June.
Even before that highlight moment, officials and many residents had begun to express more optimism that long-term drinking water solutions could eventually be secured.
In late April, it was announced that Saint-Gobain would fund design of water line extensions to about 200 of the affected properties, while continuing to negotiate with the state over extensions to other properties.
In July, the company agreed to provide $20 million to fund new water lines to about half the state-defined contamination zone around two former ChemFab factories. Negotiations on a similar settlement concerning the other properties are expected to reach some resolution by mid-2018.
Construction of some 14 miles of new water lines began in the fall and will continue through next fall.
While that effort continues, attorneys are pressing a private class-action suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of affected households within the contamination zone. The case schedule calls for a trial in October.
In a brief ceremony Dec. 11, Scott, local lawmakers and others celebrated connection of the first home to one of the new water lines, while acknowledging there is more work to be done.
“This is a great day, and good for Bennington,” said the homeowner, David Laplante, after the officials toasted with glasses of water from the kitchen tap.
Read the story on VTDigger here: 2017 saw progress on PFOA issues in Bennington.