BENNINGTON, VT. >> Seventh grade students from Mount Anthony Union Middle School wrote a letter urging U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to take action on PFOAs, and on Thursday were visited by a member of his staff.
Tom Berry, a field representative and policy adviser to the senator, talked to the students about the history of environmental legislation in the U.S., and the responsibilities of the government to protect its people. The students were members of the Ninevah team, and have been learning about PFOA, which is short for perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical that has recently been found in water in North Bennington and Pownal, as well as neighboring Hoosick Falls, N.Y., according to Emily Hunter, a science teacher whose classroom hosted the visit. She said the unit was covered mostly in social studies class with teacher Helen Fields, but that aspects of the subject were taught in other classes as well.
Four students began by reading their letters aloud to Berry. "Although my household does not have PFOA, this is a problem for everyone," said one of the students, Aneesh Kamath.
After they were finished reading, each student gave their letter to Berry to take back to Leahy.
Berry's daughter, Emily, who is going to school to become a teacher, and this summer will teach middle school science on a Native American reservation, was also in attendance, and introduced her father and helped lead the students through a brainstorming activity after his talk. During the introduction, she apologized, saying her father was used to talking with college students, and that the talk could be dense and boring. Taking it in stride, Berry introduced himself to the students as "Mr. Dense and Boring."
"The federal government is really big," he said, "and it has a hard time hearing from individual towns and communities, and what their concerns are. My job is to take those concerns back to the senator."
He said Leahy was currently focusing on not just how to clean up the polluted sites, but how to prevent something like this from happening again. To that end, said Berry, Leahy, his counterpart Sen. Bernie Sanders. I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have drafted a letter in which the three urge their fellow senators and representatives to address the issue of contamination by strengthening the Toxic Substances Control Act and making it mandatory for chemicals to be studied for possible adverse health effects before they are used in products. PFOA was used in numerous manufacturing processes, including the creation of fluoropolymers such as Teflon.
Berry described the federal government as often being slow to act, and said that citizen-activists and the media are critical in drawing the government's attention to important issues. "Your government only protects you as much as you ask or demand your government to protect you," said Berry, "and there are still a lot of gaps."
Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.