Residents decry plan to deposit PFOA soils
BENNINGTON — A plan to dump PFOA-contaminated soil excavated from pending water line projects along the Route 279 right-of-way prompted an outpouring of opposition from neighbors to the site during a public hearing.
While thanking state officials for efforts to bring clean water to residents around former ChemFab Corp. factories with PFOA in their wells, the Rev. Penny Rich Smith, of Bard Road, said many living near the proposed dumping site have "major issues and concerns" about the proposal.
She and several of the more than two dozen who attended the hearing Tuesday cited worries about the effects of dumping more contaminated soil near their properties and about the impacts of thousands of large truck trips through neighborhoods during the project.
"We are talking about 66,000 tons of poison dirt," Smith said at one point.
Neighbors expressed concerns about heavy truck traffic over an estimated 200-day project, involving nearly 4,000 trips over local roads.
Another of those commenting, Ed Balzer, of Austin Hill Road, said he has talked to attorneys and promised to mount a legal challenge, which he believes could make it "too expensive" for the state to attempt to use the chosen site.
The proposed dumping areas are on both sides of Vermont Route 279 just west of the Austin Hill Road underpass, state officials said. The estimated 44,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil is expected to come from excavations during extension of municipal water lines to some 200 properties around the former factories with PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) in wells.
State officials believe PFOA, a chemical used in the manufacture of the Teflon, which ChemFab used to coat fiberglass fabrics from 1968 through 2002, was primarily spread through factory stack emissions that built up in soil over a wide area around two plants.
The material has since leached into groundwater and into private wells. An agreement between the state Agency of Natural Resources and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which the state considers the party responsible for dealing with the contamination, will provide $20 million to fund the first phase of water line extensions to provide clean water for about half the affected properties — scheduled to begin in October.
According to the plan to deposit soils along Route 279, the levels of PFOA in the area have been shown through testing to be well below the state's advisory level for skin contact of 300 parts per billion (a maximum of 45 ppb in the contamination zone), and the site chosen already has PFOA in the soil and that area will be connected to the municipal water lines.
John Schmeltzer, a hazardous site manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, explained the environmental assessment that led to selection of the Route 279 site.
He said the assessment considered a range of options and possible dump sites. Those included taking no action as to the choice of a deposit site, or choosing from alternative options including Ore Bed Road, Bard Road, a site on the Bennington College campus, the former Bennington landfill site, and the William Morse State Airport site.
The Route 279 site best met all the criteria outlined in the assessment report, and is able to accommodate the estimated 44,000 cubic yards of excess soil generated by what was bid recently as five separate construction projects.
However, because the site is in the right-of-way of a federally funded highway, the Federal Highway Administration required the ongoing hearing process and must later sign off on whether further environmental assessments are warranted.
Addressing concerns of further contamination of groundwater that might migrate under properties in the neighborhood, Schmeltzer said it is believed the groundwater is moving away from that area, toward the former ChemFab plant in North Bennington.
The assessment report commissioned by the state also noted that the total amount of soil to be deposited along Route 279 "is a very small percentage of the total mass of PFOA believed to exist in soils surrounding the disposal location due to the disposition of PFOA. Therefore, the proposed 'excess' soil from the water line project would not add any significant mass of PFOA to the area."
There also was a determination made not to look at dump sites outside the PFOA contamination zone in Bennington, Schmeltzer said, as that could potentially spread the contamination to new areas.
But neighbors were not convinced the plan was fair to them nor had been studied enough. They called for a complete environmental impact review, which would result in significant delays in a project that already has been put out to bid and the contractors selected.
Residents said, however, that they shouldn't "be held hostage" because their concerns might delay delivery of clean water to residents in the PFOA contamination zone.
"This is totally unacceptable," Smith said.
She advocated more study of the impacts on wetlands areas, trees in the area and the effects of PFOA-contaminated soil that might spread through dust during truck transport to the dumping site.
Balzer, who lives about a half-mile from the dump site, said tests of his well have thus far not detected PFOA, but he is concerned that could change because of this proposal. He said he has spoken with attorneys and his goal is to ensure the state that knows "it is going to become very costly" to implement the dumping plan at the Route 279 site.
Schmeltzer said the state will continue to evaluate the plan through a 30-day public comment period that will end Oct. 13, and then make a final determination.
If the site is still the preferred one, he said, the state will request a determination from the FHHA that the project would cause "no significant" impacts and doesn't require a full environmental impact review.
Residents contended Tuesday that the decision apparently already has been made since the construction is due to begin in October.
Concerning truck traffic, Schmeltzer said conditions normally are placed on truck operations before a project can begin. Those could include control of dust or hours of operation.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town had planned to upgrade the streets in that area and postponed that work because officials knew a major water line project was likely, but the streetwork is planned for after the water project.
Residents also contended there have to be treatment options available to cleanse the soil, or that one of the other site options considered might be better suited, particularly the former town landfill site.
Schmeltzer said that, unlike well-established treatments for soils with petroleum or similar contamination, there is no acceptable soil treatment option available at this time, in part because PFOA is still an emerging contaminant that presents unique environmental problems.
Residents also said they fear much more contaminated soil could be dumped near them in the second phase of the water line work, but the officials said the Route 279 site is not considered large enough to accept more soil than is now proposed.
Hurd said the issue of whether the old landfill is a significant source of PFOA contamination is at the core of ongoing negotiations between the state and Saint-Gobain over the second half of the contamination zone — roughly east of Route 7A — making that site unsuitable for dumping soil, at least until further testing is completed.
The town manager also said it seems appropriate that soils unearthed to bring water lines to the Austin Hill area be deposited there, but the soils planned for the site would come from other areas of town as well.
"I think a question that bears answering is: Is this truly the only site?" he asked.
Information on how to comment on the plan and a copy of the assessment report can be found on the DEC website, at http://dec.vermont.gov/news/pfoa-env-asses-soil-disp
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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