Our View: ChemFab history proves need for strong regulation

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The series by the Banner and VTDigger.org on the effects of PFOA contamination around former ChemFab factories paints a portrait of a community overwhelmed by fallout from an industrial operation.

The perfluorooctanoic acid that state officials say spread over a wide swath of North Bennington and Bennington has long since worked into the soil and spread through groundwater, affecting hundreds of local wells. And given the stable, insoluble nature of the chemical, scientists believe it could remain in some concentration in water pretty much forever.

PFOA was used in the manufacture of Teflon, with which the local factories coated fiberglass fabrics, then dried them at high temperatures.

According to state environmental officials, ChemFab factory emissions spread PFOA pollution far and wide during operations at a Bennington plant from 1968-78 and from 1978-2002 at the North Bennington facility on Route 67A.

In 2002, the new company owners, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, moved the operation to New Hampshire, stating as they left town that one attraction was that Vermont's plant emissions standards were becoming stricter than those of the Granite State.

Officials in that state, naturally, are today facing some of the same contamination issues, and also trying to get the company to fund new water lines or other projects to provide clean, PFOA-free drinking water.

The Banner/VTDigger series on ChemFab and PFOA also illustrates how massive a problem this is — and how expensive to deal with.

For instance, the cost of extending water lines to the affected properties in Bennington is estimated at more than $30 million, and potential damages sought by the property owners in a class-action suit against Saint-Gobain could total millions more.

Then there are the potential health effects and related costs, which are hanging like a dark cloud over every resident with a contaminated well and/or a high level of PFOA in their blood.

PFOA exposure was associated through a 10-year study of more than 65,000 people in the Ohio Valley area to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, pregnancy induced hypertension and high cholesterol.

What precise level of exposure triggers a specific disease or condition hasn't been shown through studies, but that only means residents with the chemical in their blood are left to wonder when the medical hammer might fall.

Think about all this the next time some callous politician whines about the horrors of government regulation. Think about it and total up the cost of enforcing truly effective stack emissions and chemical disposal controls on industrial operations versus the millions and millions required to deal with one pollution issue from a single industrial operation.

Today, it seems obvious that this manufacturing process wasn't regulated harshly enough. But today is really too damn late.

In fact, it wasn't government regulators who brought out the truth about PFOA exposure and groundwater contamination — it was the victims of this type of pollution in the Ohio Valley and their attorneys. Now, the problem is on the national radar but that has taken years.

Isn't that always the problem? Teflon and PFOA were in use for decades before victims of contaminated water supplies and their lawyers forced this environmental crisis into the light of day.

It should be the job of government to shed light on potential hazards long before they create widescale disasters — and to force companies to show that chemicals they use are at least not hazardous and will be handled and disposed of safely.

Legislation to that effect was introduced last year in the Vermont Legislature but it failed to pass. What do you say we demand such legislation next session and put current and potential victims of industrial pollution out there — meaning all of us — ahead of the profits of large corporations?

And maybe give government regulators both the support and funding they need to stay on top the the next crisis before it erupts.








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