Year in Review: A year marked by progress on PFOA contamination issues

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BENNINGTON — The past year was one in which some of the trauma began to subside for residents whose wells and yards were found in early 2016 to be contaminated with PFOA.

Two meetings in North Bennington early this year illustrated the mood at that time. Held on the Bennington College campus, these sessions included one of the periodic updates from state officials on the perfluorooctanoic acid contamination. The other was a public hearing featuring testimony on the widespread local impacts.

The pollution had been traced by officials to stack emissions from former ChemFab Corp. plants that spread PFOA over a wide area, where it worked into the groundwater.

On Jan. 26, health experts presented the findings of blood testing of residents for PFOA levels, while state environmental officials were pressed by residents on whether the new Scott administration would be as aggressive as the former Shumlin administration in pursuing funding from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics to provide clean drinking water to the affected properties.

Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation officials repeated that they and the Attorney General's office were continuing to negotiate a settlement with Saint-Gobain, which acquired ChemFab in 2000. The international firm moved the local fabric coating operations to New Hampshire in 2002, but PFOA remained in soil and the groundwater.

A salient point health officials made at the meeting was "that there's some uncertainty" concerning the meaning of testing for PFOA, which has been linked to certain cancers, high blood pressure and colitis. What blood level can be said to cause one or more of the diseases has yet to be fully determined and will require more testing, they said.

But many residents knew they had PFOA in their blood, primarily acquired, health experts said, through drinking contaminated well water.

The levels found in the blood of Bennington residents tested averaged 10 micrograms per liter, health officials said, compared to the national average of 2.1 micrograms per liter. Some individual blood levels were found to be much higher.

In addition, health officials stressed that studies have shown PFOA in the blood declines slowly — by about one half about every 2 to 4 years.

The meeting held less than a week later was a hearing of the Vermont Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, of which Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, serves as vice chairman. The hearing sought input on legislation sponsored by Campion and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, that would hold any party releasing PFOA into the atmosphere liable for costs of extending municipal water service to contaminated properties to provide safe drinking water.

The state was engaged in negotiations with Saint-Gobain over the estimated $30 million cost of extending municipal water lines to the more than 300 contaminated properties. If no agreement could be reached, officials said, the state would go to court to recoup the cost of water line extensions and other expenses related to dealing with the pollution.

The bill did pass the Legislature, and it was signed in June by Gov. Phil Scott on the deck of the Publyk House restaurant in Bennington with a number of state and local officials and lawmakers present.

Even before that highlight moment, officials and many residents had begun to express more optimism that long-term drinking water solutions could eventually be secured.

In late April, it was announced that Saint-Gobain would fund design of water line extensions to about 200 of the affected properties, while continuing to negotiate with the state over extensions to those properties roughly east of Route 7A and the rail line.

In July, the company agreed in a consent decree to provide $20 million to fund new water lines to about half the state-defined contamination zone around two former ChemFab factories. Negotiations on a similar settlement concerning the other properties are continuing and are expected to reach some type of resolution by mid-2018.

Construction of some 14 miles of new water lines began in the fall and will continue through next fall. Work in the second phase of the contamination zone would begin sometime next year of an agreement can be concluded with Saint-Gobain, officials have said.

While that effort continues, attorneys are pressing a private class-action suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of affected households within the contamination zone. The case schedule calls for a trial to begin in October 2018.

In a brief ceremony on Dec. 11, Scott, local lawmakers and others celebrated connection of the first home to one of the new water lines, ending the year on a higher note than 2017 began in Bennington while pointedly acknowledging there is more work to be done.

"This is a great day, and good for Bennington," said the homeowner, David Laplante of Fairview Street, after the officials toasted the moment with glasses of water from the kitchen tap.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BBtherrien on Twitter.

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