Matt Dunne: Responding to the PFOA contamination

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Over the last few weeks, Vermonters' hearts have been with the people of North Bennington.

The discovery of (so far) more than 90 PFOA contaminated wells near the grounds of a former chemical plant, and the recent news that another plant may have caused contamination in Pownal, is a reminder that Vermont's industrial past is not behind us.

I can't help but be reminded of the gasoline tanker that overturned in my hometown of Hartland in 1997 when I was State Senator for Windsor County. As a result of the accident, the chemical MBTE leaked into our water table, contaminating wells throughout our village and the water source for the elementary school. It was a scary time, between the immediate safety concerns and residents' worry that their homes -- for many their primary asset -- might be unsellable.

We got through that crisis with strong coordination with the state to make sure wells were tested regularly and that we received frequent updates. Ultimately, the town received a settlement to cover the costs of remediation and the chemical dissipated over time. The legislature also banned the use of MTBE in gasoline to prevent future contamination.

Having been through a similar incident, I want to commend Peter Shumlin for his initial rapid reaction after the PFOA crisis was discovered and the state's continued diligence in updating citizens about the status of the testing. I am also glad that St. Gobain, the company responsible, has been providing water to affected residents. All indications, however, are that this issue will not be resolved immediately. It will likely will be up to the next administration to make sure it is resolved.

As I have talked to North Bennington residents over the last several weeks, many have expressed concern over the long term well-being of the community, the impact on their property values, and concern that no one seems to agree on what is a safe level of PFOA. Moving forward, we have to focus on six areas of action.

Meeting the immediate needs of affected residents. We must ensure that residents of North Bennington have an ongoing and free source of clean water and that we are ready to provide necessary health screening and care going forward.

Transparency. As with many other aspects of civic life in Vermont, we need to improve transparency around water quality. We need to make it easy and affordable for private citizens to test their wells, and for municipalities to test pipes and infrastructure. The results of these tests need to be published so people understand how their communities are affected. It is not acceptable for any Vermonters to have unanswered questions about the safety of their drinking water.

Infrastructure investment. We need to have protocols in place to allocate funds quickly and efficiently to repair and expand infrastructure when needed. If need be, this includes building out the public water system in North Bennington to affected areas to prevent further risk and to protect property values. We must take these steps as soon as possible even if that means starting before the courts and insurance companies sort out exactly who needs to pay for the damages.

Financial compensation. Private companies very likely have insurance for this type of situation and we have every reason to believe that St. Gobain will do the right thing, but the next Governor will need to follow it through to resolution. The economic burden of extending the water system to ensure all residents have clean water should not fall on the shoulders of Vermonters.

Guaranteed resolution. When I was the director of Americorps*VISTA, my team worked with many communities in crisis. And what I saw was that residents' biggest worry after a crisis happened was that the promised help and much-needed government assistance would not go far enough, or would disappear once the issue was out of the news. This cannot happen in Vermont. In North Bennington and anywhere else a similar issue arises, we need the government to make good on its obligation to see the issue through to a complete resolution.

Demand a safe standard recommendation from the EPA. Residents all want to know what is a safe level of PFOA and haven't gotten consistent answers. The EPA has known for years that PFOA likely causes cancer, but still has not completed the research to establish a safe level. In 2009 they set an interim level for PFOA in drinking water of .4 parts per billion (ppb), but that number is simply not proven and we have been told it is not to be trusted. Now, residents have been advised to avoid water higher than .02 ppb, yet still, other studies suggest that the safe level is even lower, at .001 ppb. If all the current testing and decisions are based on incomplete data or partial assessments, we can't be confident about what a safe level actually is. Until we are sure about acceptable levels of PFOA, either people could be taking steps to avoid PFOA exposure that are unnecessary, or people could remain exposed due to a level set too low.

Either way, we need to demand concrete answers from the EPA.

Our state's industrial past will always be part of our landscape. We must have the vision to use that to our advantage as we help new economies take root in refurbished mills or factories, but we also need a decisive, transparent plan of action to deal with pollution and contamination from these old buildings across the state if and when the issue arises again. To do right by Vermonters, we need to stay focused on the community's short and long term needs, learn from the experience, and always put the well-being of Vermonters first.

— Matt Dunne us running for Vermont governor as a Democrat.


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