Photo Gallery | Erin Brockovich meets with Hoosick Falls residents
BENNINGTON — BENNINGTON -- Erin Brockovich stood at the podium and said she was struck by the beauty of Southern Vermont and the nearby village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
But, she said, she's frustrated at the same time: The 3,500 residents of the working-class village have been told not to drink or cook with the water.
"It doesn't matter what your political party is," Brockovich told a crowd of about 500 on Saturday afternoon at Bennington College's Greenwall Auditorium. "It doesn't matter what the color of your skin is. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor. Everyone is entitled to have safe and pure water available to them and their families at all times."
Brockovich, the famous environmental and consumer advocate, urged those in attendance to talk to elected and public officials, ask questions and demand answers. And she stressed that those living in the village and the town of Hoosick must stand together.
"Every community I've been in, when I see them get together, that's when things begin to change," she said.
Brockovich and members of her legal team arrived early Saturday morning to tour Hoosick Falls' village center. They visited the village water treatment plant, where two new carbon filters will soon remove perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a man-made chemical linked to cancers and other diseases. They drove by the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics factory, a newly declared state Superfund site were PFOA levels in the groundwater are 40 times the federal advisory. She even stopped into the Falls Diner to take in some local flavor.
Brockovich, who in the 1990s helped build a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric and was later depicted by Julia Roberts in a movie on her life, said village residents asked her to visit. Her and representatives with Weitz & Luxenberg said they were there to listen to people's questions and provide information on legal options. The firm intends to seek damages for local victims of contamination.
Robin Greenwald, an attorney with who heads the firm's Environmental, Toxic Tort & Consumer Protection litigation unit, said she did not want to pressure attendees to join a lawsuit. But people should be aware of the three-year statute of limitation for personal injury, she said, and it's not clear when that began or will end.
Residents shared personal stories about their own health problems or those of a loved one.
One woman said she's lived in the village for 14 years and has gotten three cancers in the last two years.
Jennifer Plouffe said she recently moved from Virginia and didn't know about the water issue when she closed on her home in November. Her bank has stopped issuing mortgages on village homes and she wondered how many people are in the same situation.
"This is my first home purchase and it has been a nightmare," Plouffe said. "I essentially closed on a home without potable water."
Brockovich, Greenwald and others said the science on PFOA is growing fast and they didn't have all of the answers. Attendees left with some unanswered questions: How did PFOA enter the water supply? Is the current limit of 400 parts per trillion low enough? And were other chemicals released into the groundwater or surface water during the factory's hay day?
"Is this just the tip of the iceberg?" one man asked.
Greenwald said there was little to no environmental regulation before the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed in 1976. Any waste handled incorrectly could have ended up in the groundwater. The law allows for prosecution for anyone who did contribute to hazardous waste dumping, she said.
Lori Stewart said she was worried about her 8-year-old daughter drinking the tap water given the potential health risks. The chemical, once used in making nonstick coating and to insulate wires, has been linked to cancers and thyroid diseases. And Stewart and others said they've had numerous cats and dogs that have young.
Stewart said calls to state Department of Health didn't get her anywhere; she spent hours being transferred from department to department.
"I deserve answers," Stewart said. "I've been getting a contaminated product for 15 years. Don't ask me to pay my water bill, don't ask me to pay my mortgage."
Her message was echoed by many others who felt being charged was unfair. The EPA has told residents not to drink or cook with the water. And will homeowners be charged for flushing contaminated water from pipes when the filter is online?
Greenwald said there's no legal mechanism to have water bills forgiven and wasn't aware of any community being successful in that effort. But any payments could be sought as damages in a lawsuit, she said.
Many voiced dissatisfaction with public officials. Some said were told the state would test their wells, but are on waiting lists or were flat-out denied.
Attendees said some renters were not notified of the water issue as a mailed notice from the village was only received by the landlord. Some residents said the village government barred them from going door-to-door to spread the news.
"It's not the [village board's] fault there are chemicals in your water," Greenwald said. "But there are certain people you need to look to for help. It's one body you can go to."
Brockovich said she has seen resistance among public bodies and encouraged every audience member to attend the next village board meeting on Feb. 9.
"The public is aware, they're alert and I think they're going to get organized," Brockovich said in an interview with the Banner after the meeting.
She said it's important for people to know how they can advocate for themselves. "They will start realizing they can make a choice and that they have a voice," she said.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979.