NORTH BENNINGTON, VT >> The state of Vermont says well owners within a one and a half mile radius from the former ChemFab facility should not drink or cook with their water because it may be contaminated with a toxic, man-made chemical.
Bottled water will soon be provided to residents by the state. State environmental and health officials are trying to find out how far the contamination spread, how it got there, and what entities they will hold responsible.
The former ChemFab facility at 1030 Water St. is the potential contamination source. More samples will be taken within a one-and-a-half-mile radius, including the Waloomsac River, next week. The investigation could expand depending on results of future tests.
The public water systems that serve the village and town have both tested negative for the chemical and are considered safe.
"Our primary concern is making sure people have clean, safe water," Alyssa B. Schuren, commissioner for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, told over 120 people who attended an informational meeting in the North Bennington fire house Friday afternoon. It came a day after the state announced perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a man-made and potentially toxic chemical formerly used to make Teflon, was found in private wells.
Richard Spiese, hazardous site manager for the state's Waste Management and Prevention Division, said it's unclear how the substance was released into the environment. It may have come from smokestacks or ventilation ducts and then settled on the ground before leaching into groundwater. Or, it was released directly into the soil.
State labs aren't equipped for the complex tests for PFOA and all samples must be sent out of state, Schuren said, meaning it could take two weeks to get results.
Bennington Selectboard member Jim Carroll asked how long the state could afford to fund bottled water and what a long-term solution would be.
Schuren said the state must determine the party responsible for the contamination which, under laws provided under Superfund, would be made to reimburse the government for any costs, including bottled water and a cleanup.
Long-term solutions floated at the meeting included water filters on private wells. But in the meantime, residents within that one-and-a-half-mile radius are urged to sign up for bottled water
Vermont standards say 20 parts per trillion of PFOA are considered acceptable for short-term exposure, or about 15 minutes. EPA's standard is 400 ppt. In North Bennington, three residential wells had PFOA levels of 40.5, 422 and over 2,300 ppt. Wells at Pembroke Landscaping and the Wastewater Treatment Facility bedrock well, which aren't used for drinking, tested 153 ppt and 516 ppt, respectively.
The DEC took water samples after a concerned citizen advised them about possible contamination at ChemFab, which began making Teflon products at 1030 Water St. in 1970. ChemFab and its holdings were purchased by Saint-Gobain in 2000 and ceased operations in North Bennington in 2002. Saint-Gobain still owns a factory in Hoosick Falls.
In attendance were village residents and officials and local college students and professors. Officials included Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, Vermont state senators Brian Campion and Dick Sears; and Vermont state representatives Timothy R. Corcoran, Jr., Rachael Fields, Kiah Morris and Mary Morrissey.
Schuren, Spiese and others who spoke took attendees' questions and wrote them down on large sheets of paper. Residents signed up for well tests and were given fact sheets and contact information. Officials could not answer some questions, but took them down and said they would research them for the correct information. They explained it's a new issue that they and scientists are trying to get a handle on.
There was also talk of how to get information out to the public. Schuren called on residents to reach out to their neighbors. There was also talk of volunteers going door-to-door.
PFOA is one of 100 "emerging contaminants" under consideration for the Clean Water Act and municipalities aren't required to test for it. It was used for decades to make Teflon, the water and grease repellent coating for products like cookware and insulated wire. It's been linked to cancer, is the subject of numerous lawsuits, and many scientists and activists are calling for stricter regulation.
The EPA started telling Hoosick Falls, N.Y. residents to not drink or cook with public tap water after PFOA was found. Part of the village is now a Superfund site. The state launched health studies and began testing private wells. Saint-Gobain and Honeywell International were identified as "potentially responsible" for the contamination.
Schuren, who prefaced it by saying she was speaking as a mother, said she was sorry residents are dealing with this.
"You shouldn't have to," she said. Her and others are going to work with residents any way they can to ensure they are fully informed of the issue and have access to resources they need.
"Because not only should you not be dealing with this issue," Schuren said, "you certainly should not be paying for it."
If you live within the area of concern and need your private well tested, director of the Waste Management and Prevention Division of the Department of Environmental Conservation at 802-828-1138, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979