BENNINGTON, VT. >> Days after the company believed to be responsible for contaminating private wells challenged the state's acceptable levels for the chemical PFOA, state officials are beefing up efforts to tackle pollution.
An emergency ruling issued by environmental officials on Thursday set an interim enforcement standard for PFOA, the chemical found in wells in North Bennington and Pownal, and declared the chemical formerly used to make Teflon to be a hazardous substance.
In addition, local legislators are involved with a new law that aims to give more teeth to laws that environmental regulators use to make polluters pay for a cleanup.
The emergency ruling by the state Department of Environmental Conservation comes days after Saint-Gobain, which the state says is "potentially responsible" for PFOA contamination, filed an appeal challenging the state's acceptable level of PFOA.
"It's unfortunate the company has chosen to take this approach with the state, although we will continue to move forward and work together on what we do agree with," DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren told the Banner on Thursday. "We do ultimately expect to prevail in both lawsuits."
Schuren said her agency will start the rule making process on Friday to set a final enforcement.
PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was a key part of the process to make Teflon — the non-stick, water-repellent coating once used in cookware, to insulate wires and in tapes and foams.
The chemical has been linked to cancer and other diseases. It's been found in private wells in North Bennington and Pownal, and a municipal water system serving part of Pownal. Bennington and North Bennington's municipal water systems are not affected.
In March, the Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Health set an Interim Enforcement Standard, or "health advisory," of 20 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA in groundwater. Other states have higher levels. It's 100 ppt in New York, where more than 3,000 Hoosick Falls residents were told to not drink tap water for four months because of contamination believed to be from a facility Saint-Gobain has owned since 1996. The federal "guidance level" from the EPA is 400 ppt.
Saint-Gobain's complaint, filed in Washington County Superior Court in Montpelier last week, argues the state has no scientific basis for setting the 20 ppt interim standard and argues it is not enforceable. An appeal filed in the state's Environmental Court argues the standard be overturned because it is based on a draft health effects document from the federal EPA.
Saint-Gobain spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff-Silver said the company filed the appeal "since it's critical for us, the North Bennington community, Vermonters and all involved to participate in the fair rule making process and understand the specific science the state has evaluated and vetted that led to setting the limit at this level."
She continued: "While we respect the state's right to set its own PFOA limits in a fair manner and based on sound science, it's important that the state adopt a standard that is reasonably appropriate, protective and realistic from a public health standpoint. Saint-Gobain is asking to have the opportunity to comment on the interim standard, as well as the emergency rules that Vermont just issued. The company will comply with any and all laws of the state and our appeal does not impact the commitments we have already made."
State Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said new legislation with their amendments aims to prevent future contamination and give more power to state agencies seeking cleanups from companies. Bill H.595, first proposed by Robert Krebs, was passed unanimously by the Senate's Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on Wednesday and is set to be on the House floor next week.
"We don't want citizens and the state to pick up the tab of polluters," Campion said.
The bill requires water in new wells be tested for chemicals including arsenic, lead, fluoride and total nitrate and nitrite. It also would allow ANR add chemicals if historic or geographic use warrants it. It would also allow funds from the Environmental Contingency Fund be spent without first requiring a potentially responsible party contribute to the fund.
Saint-Gobain has voluntarily agreed to reimburse the state for costs for providing bottled water for residents around North Bennington and Pownal, meaning those funds can be utilized.
The bill includes provisions that would allow the ANR to request information from a potential polluter, including financial information ad well as the type of chemicals used, the dangers of those chemicals, as well as types and locations of releases. Trade secrets and financial information wouldn't be public information.
Campion noted that Saint-Gobain has been cooperating with the state's requests for that information already. Otherwise, it's likely the state would have to pursue that information in court, he said.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979.