An environmental disaster is often invisible. But I could see it in the fear and anxiety on the faces of people in North Bennington, where I recently spent several days visiting and speaking with local residents. These Vermonters stand as a powerful reminder that we have to redouble our efforts to safeguard our environmental resources, including safe drinking water.
I visited North Bennington to meet with some of the people most affected by the recent discovery that a toxic chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, has been found in the groundwater. Many homes in the area of the former ChemFab plant, which made Teflon products until it closed in 2002, have been found to have unsafe levels of PFOA in their wells.
It is heartbreaking to talk to people who wonder whether they or their children will suffer cancer, thyroid disease or any of the other ailments associated with this industrial chemical. One woman I spoke with was pregnant when she worked at the ChemFab plant. She described how clouds of smoke bathed the factory floor where she worked. Now her son has a learning disability and she has serious health problems.
Over at Kevin's Sports Pub in North Bennington, a man told me, "I worked all my life and invested my savings into my house. And now I'm worried that my house has lost all its value."
I know from my experience in helping to lead the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene that it is at times like this, when residents are gripped by fear and uncertainty, that people most need strong and reassuring leadership.
I am pleased to see the immediate response from the governor, our Congressional delegation, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health, and from the local officials and state representatives with whom I met while I was in Bennington.
One key to our success during the Irene recovery was to be "all in:" breaking down silos of government to ensure that all agencies were delivering coordinated aid to those most affected by the disaster. The people of North Bennington did not create the mess they find themselves in, and they should not have to pay to fix it.
North Bennington is not unique: many communities across the state are grappling with toxic pollution from abandoned industrial sites and mines that put our rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, groundwater and drinking water at risk. Whether the pollution is from old sewer systems that overflow, or polluted stormwater runoff from our parking lots, roads, driveways, and farms, we cannot ignore the threat this pollution poses to our health and our economy.
Responding to a crisis presents an opportunity. We must think differently, and build back stronger. As I know from being Secretary of Transportation, basic necessities, such as drinking water, roads, bridges, and other elements of our infrastructure, don't fix themselves.
Now is the time to invest in and modernize our infrastructure to keep Vermont and our economy strong and healthy.
We must also hold the polluters accountable. The companies responsible for this disaster should be required to pay to extend safe municipal drinking water lines to serve the affected residences in North Bennington. Only then will health, safety and property values be assured.
And Vermonters can feel confident that businesses in their communities adhere to strict environmental and worker safety standards.
North Bennington is facing tough times. To those North Bennington residents who are facing an uncertain future, I offer this reassurance, learned in the muddy and frightening aftermath of Irene: Vermonters do not leave Vermonters behind. Together, we can and will succeed in North Bennington and in other communities facing challenges by solving this crisis in a way that prevents future ones.
— Sue Minter is a Democratic candidate for Governor of Vermont.