Bennington residents get update on PFOA settlement talks
BENNINGTON — Updating residents on the state's response to PFOA contamination, officials sought to address frustrations that have mounted as negotiations continue with the suspected responsible party — Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics — over roughly half of the contamination zone in Bennington.
Focusing on the eastern section of the state-identified zone, officials discussed a draft report from a consultant hired by the company, which contends there might be multiple other sources of PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination unrelated to two former ChemFab Corp. plants.
The company acquired the local ChemFab plants in 2000 before closing the last operation here, in North Bennington, in 2000.
"We don't feel that way," Charles "Chuck" Schwer, director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Waste Management and Prevention Division, said of conclusions in the Saint-Gobain consultant's report.
Schwer, John Schmeltzer, state DEC project manager, and Richard Spiese, a DEC hazardous site manager, first met with about two dozen residents Monday at the Old First Church barn to discuss the on-going process of negotiating a settlement with the company.
They later attended a second meeting at Bennington College to update residents in the western section of the contamination zone concerning the installation of municipal water lines as a permanent solution to the pollution. That work began in the fall and now is on hold for the winter months.
In a previous settlement, Saint-Gobain agreed in the fall to provide $20 million for new lines and other PFOA-related costs for more than 200 properties in the western section. In the same consent agreement, the company agreed to a timeline and process for completing well, groundwater, soil and other testing in the eastern section, and for a review by the state Agency of Natural Resources.
The environmental officials reaffirmed that they still believe the ChemFab plants were the predominant source of PFOA contamination of soil, groundwater and hundreds of wells.
"There may have been other industries that contributed [PFOA]," Schwer said, but the widespread ChemFab contribution through factory stack emissions "was an order of magnitude" higher than any other potential sources.
The officials will review the Saint-Gobain consultant's already 5,380-page draft report, along with a state-hired consultant, prior to discussions in the spring they hope will lead to a similar consent decree and funding from the company for further water line extensions.
The final report from the company's consultants, Barr Engineering, concerning the eastern section is due by March 15. If no agreement can be reached with Saint-Gobain, the state is committed to taking the company to court over funding to extend water lines to the eastern section properties, the officials said.
In addition, they said they've been in regular communication with the Attorney General's office, Bennington area lawmakers, other state officials, including the governor's office, as the testing and the negotiations process moves toward the March deadline.
Residents asked numerous questions about the points of disagreement concerning the source of the PFOA. Thus far, the officials said, the data in the Barr Engineering report is generally consistent with other data the state has, but the differences are in the interpretation of the data. The PFOA air distribution model the state believes is accurate also differs from one the company has, they said.
Several residents expressed frustration at the prospect of having to wait for a settlement, if one can be reached, and then design work for new water lines, and finally construction of the water lines. Construction in the western section began in the fall and is expected to be completed by this fall.
Meanwhile, the residents said, many have wells with on-site filtering systems to remove PFOA, which significantly reduce water pressure.
Schmeltzer said the state, which is funding the filtering systems in the eastern section because Saint-Gobain would not, although the firm did provide the units elsewhere in the area, will speak with the filter system contractor, Culligan water, about possible solutions to the low-pressure issue.
The agency has a 20-percent design for proposed eastern section water line extension, the officials said, but the state can't move faster on design prior to an agreement with Saint-Gobain or that could jeopardize any later effort to secure reimbursements, if required, through the courts.
In another PFOA-related matter, attorney David Silver, one of several lawyers from four firms involved in a suit against Saint-Gobain in U.S. District Court, noted at the meeting that a ruling on whether the suit can proceed as a class action is due in the spring. If that is granted, he said, "it will be a huge incentive for Saint-Gobain to settle."
The suit seeks damages for property owners in the zone area for several categories of losses allegedly caused by the contamination.
The draft Saint-Gobain report from Barr Engineering is posted at http://dec.vermont.gov/commissioners-office/pfoa#Update.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: email@example.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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