BENNINGTON — The Bennington Select Board received an early estimate of what the potential costs would be in expanding the municipal water system to areas affected by perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
Chuck Schwer and Richard Spiese from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation were on hand to answer the board's questions about the ongoing investigation and study of the PFOA contamination.
"We wanted you to know where we are, what direction we're headed in, and your feedback would be really appreciated," Schwer said to the board. He said the state has continued to test wells in and around the contaminated areas, and is working with Saint-Gobain, which he described as the "potentially responsible party," to install point-of-entry treatment systems. The topic that most needed input from the Select Board, however, was the expansion of municipal water lines to supply the affected areas with PFOA-free water.
"To date, we've collected 460 samples," Schwer said, "If you had asked me back in February if that would have been possible, I would have said no way, but here we are 164, or 35 percent, were clean. 53 percent, or 243 samples, were greater than the 20 parts per trillion standard."
At one point during the presentation, which lasted just under an hour, Select Board member Jim Carroll asked Schwer what his level of satisfaction was in dealing with Saint Gobain. Chairman Tom Jacobs said that was unrelated to the presentation, and called Carroll out of order when he tried to pursue the question further. When Carroll continued to insist, Jacobs called a short recess and spoke with Carroll in the hallway outside. After the board reconvened, the issue was dropped.
Schwer said later that his office continues to work with Saint-Gobain, although the state has not yet received a commitment from the company that it will pay for expanding the water lines. Engineer Jason Dolmetsch, of MSK Engineering and Design, estimated that the project could cost as much as $25.9 million, although he cautioned that that number represents a very early estimate. He estimated that an expansion to all the affected areas would equal about 20 miles of new pipes. Schwer said they hope to have a commitment from Saint-Gobain by July 1. Schwer asked board members how they would like to proceed in measuring the interest of residents who are affected by PFOA in connecting to the municipal supply, which has repeatedly tested clean for the chemical.
The $25.9 million figure does not include the cost of similar upgrades in North Bennington. The latest estimate for that project, which is being handled by Otter Creek Engineering, was about $6 million.
Schwer said there all alternate sources of funding, such as a bond, should Saint-Gobain be unwilling to pay. "But that's a big number," he said, "so we're challenged getting the donkey to the table, but we are trying our hardest."
"I think it may make sense for the town to take the lead on determining how many people want to connect," said Town Manager Stu Hurd, "since they are, in fact, our constituents and our neighbors. I also think it's really important that this board begin to address the issue of whether or not someone can opt out, if the water main actually runs past their property. The risk being that they opt out for the time being, and after awhile their system becomes a real headache, or they want to sell their property and can't, and then they want to connect. Then you're looking at if it's at their expense, or Saint-Gobain's expense, or (someone else's) expense. So, I think we need to think about some sort of a town ordinance that, in this particular case, we would require that if water runs by your property, you must connect. Because, I think, ultimately everyone will want to connect if the PFOA is as persistent in the water table as it appears to be."
"The people out there that think drinking well water is the only way to go had probably better start rethinking that," he said.
Hurd also pointed out that the source of some contamination near the landfill is not entirely clear. "I think it's conjecture to indicate those wells on Michaels Drive and Apple Hill Road are somehow related to the groundwater that is flowing from the landfill. It is a persistently wide area of contamination. I think our monitoring wells could have been contaminated in the same fashion that the other wells were. We studies that landfill to death from 1991 to 1999, and we know that the groundwater flows to the east and south, not to the west and south."
Schwer said he appreciated the comment, and that more work certainly needed to be done.
Jacobs said the town was fortunate to have a clean municipal water supply to fall back on. "We are mediating a problem that was brought on, not by nature, but by man, and this is probably the most practical way to resolve it."
The next public meeting on the PFOA issue in Bennington and North Bennington will be held at Bennington College, in the Center for the Advancement of Public Action symposium on Wednesday, June 29, at 5:30 p.m. Schwer, Hurd, Dolmetsch, and others have all been invited to speak at that meeting.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.