Residents told: State keeping pressure on Saint-Gobain over PFOA

John Schmeltzer, a Department of Environmental Conservation project manager, speaks to Bennington residents Monday about the state’s response to PFOA contamination. Photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger
BENNINGTON — State officials Monday sought to address residents’ mounting frustration as negotiations continue with the company believed responsible for PFOA contamination of local water supplies.
Officials took exception to the conclusions of a consultant for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics that there might be multiple other sources of perfluorooctanoic acid that are unrelated to two former ChemFab Corp. plants. Saint-Gobain acquired the plants in 2000 before closing the last operation here in 2002.
“We don’t feel that way,” Charles “Chuck” Schwer, director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Waste Management and Prevention Division, told residents regarding conclusions in the Saint-Gobain consultant’s draft report.
The state is negotiating a settlement with the company covering roughly half the state-designated contamination zone. Saint-Gobain has already agreed to payments for the western half of the zone.
Schwer, DEC project manager John Schmeltzer and Richard Spiese, a DEC hazardous site manager, met with about two dozen residents Monday to discuss the negotiations.
The officials later attended a meeting at Bennington College to update residents in the western section of the contamination zone concerning the installation of municipal water lines as a permanent solution to the pollution. That work began in the fall and is on hold for the winter.
Saint-Gobain agreed to provide $20 million for new lines and other PFOA-related costs for more than 200 properties in the western section. The company also agreed to a timeline and process for completing groundwater, well, soil and other testing in the eastern section, and for a review by the state Agency of Natural Resources.
The environmental officials reaffirmed that they still believe the ChemFab plants were the predominant source of PFOA in soil, groundwater and hundreds of wells.
“There may have been other industries that contributed (PFOA),” Schwer said, but the widespread ChemFab contribution through factory stack emissions “was an order of magnitude” higher than any other potential sources.
The officials will review the Saint-Gobain consultant’s 5,380-page draft report, with the help of a state-hired consultant, before discussions in the spring they hope will lead to funding from the company for further water line extensions.
The final report from the company’s consultants, Barr Engineering, concerning the eastern section is due by March 15. If no agreement can be reached with Saint-Gobain, the state will take the company to court for funding to extend water lines to the eastern section properties, the officials said.
In addition, they said they’ve been in regular communication with the attorney general’s office, Bennington area lawmakers and other state officials, including the governor’s office, as the testing and negotiations move toward the March deadline.
Residents asked numerous questions about the points of disagreement concerning the source of the PFOA. Thus far, the officials said, the data in the Barr Engineering report are generally consistent with other data the state has, but the differences are in the interpretation. The PFOA air distribution model the state believes is accurate also differs from one the company has, they said.
Several residents expressed frustration at the prospect of having to wait for a settlement, if one can be reached, and then for design work for new water lines and finally construction. Installation in the western section is expected to be completed by the fall.
Meanwhile, the residents said, many have wells with on-site filtering systems to remove PFOA, which significantly reduce water pressure.
Schmeltzer said the state, which is funding the filtering systems in the eastern section because Saint-Gobain would not, will speak with the filter system contractor about possible solutions to the pressure issue. Saint-Gobain did provide the filtration units elsewhere in the area.
The state can’t move faster on design for eastern section water line extension for fear of jeopardizing any later effort to secure reimbursements through the courts, the officials said.
In another PFOA-related matter, attorney David Silver, one of several lawyers from four firms involved in a suit against Saint-Gobain in U.S. District Court, said at the meeting that a ruling on whether the suit can proceed as a class action is due in the spring. If that is granted, he said, “it will be a huge incentive for Saint-Gobain to settle.”
The suit seeks damages for property owners for several categories of losses allegedly caused by the contamination.
Other topics discussed during the meeting included:
• A former town landfill site on Houghton Lane, which Saint-Gobain has identified as a potential source of PFOA pollution. The consultant had difficulty drilling four deep bedrock wells in that vicinity, the officials said, so a supplement to the report on those results will be submitted to the state by Feb. 15. The state will then make comments on what has been received prior to the March 15 deadline for submission of the Barr Engineering report.
• Documentation showing that ChemFab was among the entities that dumped industrial material at the former town landfill, which later was declared a federal Superfund cleanup site. High levels of PFOA were discovered in one existing monitoring well at the site after the pollution was discovered in Bennington in early 2016. Other wells in the area of the landfill had PFOA levels below the state’s 20 parts per trillion for drinking water.
• The company’s contention that “background” PFOA levels, or those that can be found in soils worldwide due to the widespread use of PFOA in the manufacture of Teflon for decades, may be a factor for the contamination in Bennington. Both the company and the state are trying to determine what can be considered a background PFOA level in this area.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Residents told: State keeping pressure on Saint-Gobain over PFOA.