U.S. Sen. Leahy calls for more funding, stricter regulation amidst North Bennington water crisis

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BENNINGTON>> U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) says he will push for stricter regulations for drinking water and on toxic chemicals, as well as more federal funding for the EPA.

He also pledged support to connect the homes with private wells contaminated by a man-made chemical onto public water systems and to hold a company accountable for costs.

Leahy visited Bennington on Friday to meet with officials and residents over PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid.

"Ask a parent if they want money to make sure their children are getting clean water — or do they want another war," Leahy said, addressing residents, officials and the press. "I don't have to take a poll to know the answer to that."

Several times during his visit, Leahy referenced the water crisis in Flint, Mich. But he stressed that Bennington is not another Flint and applauded the response from Vermont's legislators and officials.

"I'm willing to bet Vermont would never close its eyes to it like the governor's office did in Michigan," he said. "[PFOA contamination] is something new. We're here to help."

Residents still have unanswered questions. It's unknown how far PFOA contamination has spread into the ground and water. Also unclear is how exactly it got there — whether through the air or water. While studies link chronic exposure with certain cancers, scientists aren't entirely sure how it affects the human body. And it's unclear how the chemical affects agricultural activities.

But officials say their highest priority is to make sure no one is drinking contaminated water. Residents with private wells within 1.5 miles from the former ChemFab facility, 1030 Water St., should sign up for well testing and bottled water.

The state's information hotline is 802-828-1038. A website with data, maps, and other resources is: www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/PFOA.htm.

An emergency operations center is at the state's Department of Health offices at 324 Main St.

Testing is ongoing

Of 185 private wells tested by the state, 100 had PFOA levels above Vermont's limit of 20 parts per trillion, according to Chuck Schwer, director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Waste Management and Prevention Division, and the state aims to test more.

The highest levels were close to what is believed to be the source: The former ChemFab facility at 1030 Water St., where Teflon products were made starting in the late 1960s. The Saint-Gobain Corporation eventually bought the company, closed it in 2002 and moved operations to New Hampshire.

On March 10, the state took samples from rivers, lakes and streams. Samples are expected back from the lab, which is out of state, in about two weeks.

"There's a lot we don't know about it."

The direct health effects of PFOA are not entirely known, according to the state's Department of Health Commissioner Harry Chen.

"There's a lot of uncertainty. But making sure people have clean water is the most important thing," Chen said.

PFOA is an "emerging contaminants" not regulated by the EPA.

"There's a lot we don't know about it," Schwer said.

Schwer said soil sampling in the area, including the ChemFab site, began this week. That will help scientists determine how PFOA affects wildlife and livestock, commercial farms and home gardens, and even maple syrup.

Trying to calculate how much PFOA is absorbed by, say, a leaf of lettuce, is "a challenging task," according to Chen, and those studies could take weeks.

Chen said the Center for Disease Control will help the state with blood tests for PFOA. The state hasn't yet tested any blood, he said, noting the logistical challenges of collecting that many samples.

Short term, long term solutions

Saint-Gobain said it will pay to deliver drinking water to village residents and will install carbon filtration systems at each affected home. The French multinational company is doing the same in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., the home to one of its factories. PFOA has also been found in Petersburgh, N.Y., where Taconic Plastics is the suspected source.

Leahy, echoing remarks made by Gov. Peter Shumlin at a community meeting Wednesday, said he will push for a long-term solution of connecting homes to the municipal water systems, which don't contain PFOA.

Schwer said state engineers in Montpellier and those contracted by Saint-Gobain are looking into that now. More should be known in three to four weeks, he said.

Leahy, who serves on the Senate's appropriation's committee, said he is requesting more money for the EPA. He said laws relating to toxic chemicals need to be overhauled, with many having been grandfathered in without ever being tested. He said he hopes both Democratic and Republican lawmakers can work together, but noted, "a lot of them don't like environmental legislation — unless something happens in their community."

Some politicians argue against environmental legislation because of a high cost, he said.

"Those are the same people who wrote a blank check for war in Iraq and Afghanistan," Leahy said.

Deep concern among residents

A dozen residents greeted Leahy at the North Bennington Train Depot just after 1 p.m. Among them was Matthew Patterson, chairman of the village board.

"We as the village didn't create the problem, but want to be part of the solution," Patterson said.

Ellen K. Viereck was one resident who signed up for well testing Friday. Her Shaftsbury home on Cold Spring Road is about a mile away from the train depot.

"I'm very concerned about it," she told Leahy.

Mirka Prazak told Leahy she's lived in the village for 20 years and is paying off the mortgage for her home. She's on public water, but she's concerned about what will happen to property values in town.

Will homes need to be reassessed? Will the state pay to make up the loss in taxes the community needs for its coffers?

Leahy said he believed once the water contamination is removed from private wells, property values should be fine.

"It seems like there are so many dimensions to this, and one doesn't know where to begin asking questions," Prazak said in an interview with the Banner.

She said she left Wednesday's community meeting at Bennington College — where Shumlin and others reviewed well testing results and other state efforts — with a hollow feeling in her chest.

Prazak said she thinks Bennington is a great community, but she's worried news of contamination will discourage new residents from buying a home and moving here.

"The whole community is tainted by this."

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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