by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine It promised good paying jobs. And that’s what the ChemFab plant delivered for more than 30 years. But the plant on Water Street that manufactured Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric, also delivered something workers and residents of North Bennington didn’t bank on: contaminated drinking water. Well water, contaminated with PFOA from the plant’s smoke stacks, was only discovered last year, 14 years after owner Saint-Gobain closed the plant and moved its operations to New Hampshire. The plant operated from 1970 to 2002.
PFOA (perfluorootanoic) has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and other health problems.
Bennington County Economic Report
In July, the state reached a $20 million partial settlement with Saint-Gobain with the money earmarked to extend the town’s water line to 200 effected homes in North Bennington and Bennington.
The settlement covers an area west of the railroad tracks along Route 7A .
For impacted residents east of the tracks, the state and Saint-Gobain are awaiting the results of an expedited investigation into the source of the PFOA.
In the interim, Saint-Gobain has provided residents in the impacted areas with filtered tap water.
Bennington County Senator Richard Sears said the settlement so far is only “half a loaf.”
“I said early on this is our Flint, Michigan, and we’ve got to do better than Michigan did,” he said. “So I feel pretty good about getting it done for roughly half of the group, but personally we need to do better for the rest.”
There remains a question about the source of the PFOA contamination east of Route 7 because that is also the site of the local landfill, Sears said.
If the landfill is the source of the PFOA on that side of Route 7, Sears said the only culprit could have been ChemFab.
Chuck Schwer of the Department of Environmental Conservation said all signs point to Saint-Gobain as the responsible party.
“We certainly believe strongly that Saint-Gobain and the former ChemFab was responsible for the other portion, the east side of the site,” said Schwer, the director of DEC’s waste management and prevention division.
Because Saint-Gobain didn’t agree with the state’s conclusion, the investigation into the source of the PFOA contamination on the east side of Route 7 is continuing, he said.
Schwer said it was important to reach a partial settlement so construction on the waterline extension could begin this year.
He said Saint-Gobain has been providing bottled water. And for any residence where the amount of PFOA is above 20 parts per trillion, Schwer said the company has arranged to have a point-of-entry carbon filtration system installed.
Schwer said the emission controls on the ChemFab plant were designed to catch certain contaminants but not PFOA.
As for possible waste water discharge of PFOA into groundwater, Schwer the state has no information at the present time that wastewater discharge from the plant was a source of PFOA contamination.
Asked to comment on the source of PFOA contamination and whether any wastewater discharge from the plant may have played a role, Saint-Gobain emailed the following statement:
"The state and Saint-Gobain continue to discuss the possible sources of PFOA east of Route 7. The settlement with the State involving certain homes on the west side of Route 7 ensures that construction can begin in 2017 in the areas where the State and Saint-Gobain have reached agreement. In the eastern area, both parties have agreed that the expedited investigation, in addition to a recent USEPA investigation of the Bennington Landfill, will help improve understanding of the potential source or sources of PFOA."
Two public hearings on the settlement were held in Bennington in July.
During the hearings, Schwer said the state assured residents on the east side of Route 7 that the state “is not walking away” and remains committed to providing them with safe drinking water.
Sears said a lawsuit filed by residents hopes to recover costs not addressed by the settlement, including the potential for loss of home values, health problems associated with PFOA and the cost of who pays for water usage going forward – homeowners who had been on a well system or Saint-Gobain.
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in May, seeks class action status.
Two Realtors contacted said they have not seen any evidence that PFOA contamination has affected home values.
Kathy Sollier of Maple Leaf Realty said she recently sold a house in an area with PFOA contamination.
And Realtor Kathleen Hoisington, who lives in a PFOA neighborhood, said she hasn’t seen PFOA as an issue so far.
Sears recalled receiving complaints from residents about the plant’s emissions and odor when it was still in operation, but the state was never able to resolve the problem with the company. At the time Saint-Gobain left the state, he said the company cited the state’s regulatory burden as a reason for leaving.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Vermont Business Magazine.