NORTH BENNINGTON — As residents are asking questions over a potentially harmful chemical found in private wells, officials are trying to find the answers.
Attendees of a community forum with Gov. Peter Shumlin at Bennington College Tuesday had many. Among them: Is there even a safe level of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) for the short term?
"The federal law is broken on this question," Shumlin told state health and environmental officials, legislators and North Bennington residents in attendance. "The federal law says, 'Go ahead and use your chemicals. If we find out there's a problem after they're out there, we'll deal with them.' This is nuts."
"The feds need to get their act together and bring in compliance a system that was written for the industry," Shumlin continued, "not the citizens of America."
Vermont has the lowest threshold of neighboring states for PFOA at 20 parts per trillion. The federal "advisory level" is 400 ppt and, in talking about nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y., the EPA reduced that to 100 ppt.
The chemical is linked to certain cancers, although state health officials say there is no increase in cancer rates in North Bennington.
Resident Donald Campbell asked whether it's known what facilities PFOA was used at.
PFOA has never been a regulated chemical and was used for decades. And the state has no records that explicitly state it was used at certain facilities, according to Alyssa Schuren, commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Echoing Shumlin, she agreed the federal Federal Hazardous Substances Act is broken.
"We should be testing chemicals before they get onto the market," she said. "The federal law has fallen very short on this point. The states are just left to look around and ask themselves what different industries they had and whether it was used there."
That's what Vermont is doing now. Since PFOA was found in a handful of private wells, the agency is looking into other manufacturing facilities across the state which may have used PFOA when making Teflon products, Schuren said.
The state is also testing all private wells within 1.5 miles of the former ChemFab building, which officials believe is the contamination source.
After someone stops drinking water with PFOA, the chemical can remain in the body for up to four years, according to Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner for the Department of Health.
"The most important thing from a health perspective is to stop the exposure," Dolan said Tuesday.
Residents within the testing radius who get water from a private well should avoid using water for cooking, drinking, brushing their teeth or giving to pets, she said, until their wells are tested.
Dolan said the Center for Disease Control has agreed to conduct blood tests for PFOA in North Bennington. She encouraged residents to contact their primary care physicians if they have health concerns.
Village resident Sandy Sumner noted that Saint-Gobain indicated it will cooperate with the state. But he and others "are expecting some push back at some point." Could Shumlin guarantee that if or when that happens, the state is prepared to follow through with pursuing a potential party?
Shumlin pointed to support from local legislators — both Sen. Dick Sears (D-North Bennington) and Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) have been active in the issue and attended Tuesday's tour and meeting — as well as governors in New York and New Hampshire, where PFOA has been found as well.
But it will also be up to a future governor — Shumlin is not running for another term.
"We know Montpelier can sometimes forget about this end of the state," Shumlin, a southern Vermont native, said. "You hold their feet to fire, and ill do everything I can to work with this company. The next governor will have to have the same passion for this challenge."
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979