North Bennington residents file class action suit against St. Gobain

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NORTH BENNINGTON — A group of residents has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company believed by the state to be responsible for contaminating private wells.

Residents are claiming negligence against Saint-Gobain and seek more than $5 million in damages. They also want the company to pay to connect affected homes to municipal water, clean up contamination and implement long-term medical studies.

The complaint was filed by three local law firms in U.S. District Court of Vermont in Rutland on Friday and lists four North Bennington residents as plaintiffs: James D. Sullivan, Leslie Addison, Sharyn Jones, and Bishop Robin Hood Greene.

"Our properties are contaminated, and we and our families have been drinking contaminated water for years due to Saint-Gobain's releases of hazardous PFOA into our community," Sullivan, who with Addison own a home on Asa Way, said in a statement Friday. "Saint-Gobain needs to address these harms and losses, and we have filed this case to insure that the company responds to our needs."

Attorney Patrick Bernal said the suit aims to compliment pre-existing conversations between the state and French multinational company.

"Our goal is to extend that dialogue and work together to make these things realized," Bernal told the Banner Friday. "Saint-Gobain has already hired a number of lawyers to represent it already. We think residents deserve their own representation and their own seat at the table."

Saint-Gobain Spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff-Silver said the company "has acted quickly and openly" and noted it is funding bottled water for residents and filtration systems on homes, and is in talks about long-term solutions.

"We are evaluating the claims, and we respect the right of individuals to pursue their claims in a court of law," Pokedoff-Silver wrote in an email. "We will continue to work cooperatively with the state to address concerns over the drinking water."

Tests have found 126 wells near the village of North Bennington had PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic Acid, also called C8, above what the state says is acceptable. The state believes the source is the former ChemFab/Saint-Gobain plants.

ChemFab began manufacturing woven fiberglass fabrics coated with the non-stick coating Teflon at 108 Northside Drive in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, moved operations to 1030 Water St. Saint-Gobain acquired the company in 2000 and closed the plant in 2001. At the time, a Saint-Gobain manager cited economic reasons, including "the plant's ongoing challenge of keeping emissions within Vermont regulatory standards," according to Banner archives.

Residents are being represented by Bernal of Witten, Woolmington, Campbell & Bernal, Manchester; David Silver of Barr Sternberg, Bennington; and Emily Joselson, of Langrock, Sperry & Wool, Middlebury.

"If Saint-Gobain means what it has said about continuing to work with the State and with these residents, we welcome those conversations," Joselson said in a statement.

PFOA is an "emerging contaminant" and the federal "guidance level" from the EPA is 400 parts per trillion (ppt). In March, the state set an a "health advisory," of 20 ppt for groundwater. Saint-Gobain challenged the level in court, arguing there's no scientific basis for that amount and the state had no firm enforcement rule. In response, the state issued an emergency ruling setting 20 ppt as the "interim enforcement standard," started the process of creating a final standard and declared PFOA a hazardous substance.

All four residents have private wells with PFOA levels ranging from 60 to 250 ppt, according to the complaint.

The suit seeks at least $5 million to compensate residents for real and personal property damage, diminution of property values, out of pocket expenses, and the need for long-term medical monitoring, according to the complaint. Residents seek an injunction requiring Saint-Gobain to connect impacted homes onto nearby municipal water systems, which were found to not be contaminated; remediate the groundwater aquifer; and implement long-term medical testing protocols.

The suit cites research by the C8 Science Panel that found a "probable link" between kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, pregnancy induced hypertension, ulcerative colitis, and high cholesterol.

Bernal noted the "zone of contamination" has and could continue to expand. He said as many as 500 residents could eventually be covered under the suit.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said the agency and Saint-Gobain are in continued talks over the water line extension. Consultants are now drafting pre-engingeering reports, she said, and reports are expected in the coming weeks.

"Our priorities remain ensuring residents have clean drinking water and that the pollution is addressed," she said.

Schuren said the agency has received some historical information and documents from Saint-Gobain. The company claims some are confidential business information.

"We are in a dialogue, moving through each document in an effort to confirm the need for confidentiality," Schuren said. "We expect to release all documents that do not fall under CBI in the coming weeks."

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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