State, Saint-Gobain still disagree on PFOA source

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BENNINGTON — Environmental officials are still rejecting conclusions about the sources of PFOA pollution in Bennington expressed in a draft engineering report prepared for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.

The nearly completed report by Barr Engineering raises questions about the extent of perfluorooctanoic acid contamination of soil and groundwater that emanated from two former ChemFab Corp. plants in town, specifically across sites in the eastern half of a contamination zone identified by the state.

That section involves more than 150 private wells east of Route 7A and the railroad line found to have unsafe levels of the industrial chemical.

Saint-Gobain, the international firm that purchased the former plants in 2000 and is considered by the state the responsible party for the pollution, is negotiating with the Agency of Natural Resources over costs to address the contamination, and the ongoing study will be a major factor in those talks.

The firm currently is funding up to $20 million in municipal water line extensions to provide clean water to about 200 properties in the western half of the local contamination zone, as stipulated in a consent agreement reached last year.

Chuck Schwer, director of the state's Waste Management and Prevention Division, said Friday that the company's final engineering report is due on March 15, after which Saint-Gobain and ANR representatives will discuss the results and try to reach agreement on how to address pollution the eastern sector.

Schwer added that nothing presented in the draft report has convinced agency officials that there were any other significant sources of PFOA in the area, meaning the ANR believes Saint-Gobain should agree to fund the next phase of the corrective response. Extension of water lines to that section is considered the best long-term solution available for nearly all of the affected properties.

The company has been "a good partner thus far" in addressing the contamination, Schwer said, but the next set of meetings in March should indicate "if they are willing to step up" and fund a permanent solution for residents of the eastern section. If no agreement can be reached, he said, the state is expected to "consider its legal options" to force the company to pay for a solution or recoup state expenses.

Air distribution models developed for the state show the PFOA that caused the unsafe levels in local wells emanated from former ChemFab exhaust stacks and settled over a wide area around the Water Street plant in North Bennington and an earlier Northside Drive factory in Bennington.

ChemFab was for many years a leader in coating of fiberglass fabrics with Teflon and infusing the thin, milk colored liquid into the fabric and drying it at high temperature. PFOA is a component once used in the manufacture of Teflon and has been found in soils and water — and in at least trace amounts in the blood of nearly all humans — around the world.

Elevated PFOA levels in the blood have been linked in studies to certain cancers and other illnesses or health conditions.

The draft engineering report indicates that the trends in PFOA contamination in the area under study aren't indicative of historical releases from the former ChemFab factories. And it indicates that soil concentrations are generally consistent with background PFOA concentrations or indicative of localized sources of related compounds.

But the ANR, in the agency comments released Friday, found some of the testing and modeling methods used by Barr in its study to be flawed, and disagreed with the engineering firm's conclusions concerning other sources of PFOA.

The assessment of background sources of contamination was flawed, the state says, referring to the levels of contamination that might be expected throughout the region in general, because of the widespread use of the material and its ability to spread through the atmosphere, sometimes globally.

Levels of industrial compounds related to PFOA in the area were found to be too low to have resulted in the degree of contamination discovered in local wells, the state believes.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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