BENNINGTON — News that the Trump administration has suspended contract and grant awards by the Environmental Protection Agency has some people worried about how contaminated sites will be cleaned up.
News outlets first reported on Monday that the agency's extensive grant program, which fund research, site cleanups and clean water infrastructure, was suspended for an unknown amount of time, and of a so-called "media blackout." Subsequent reports suggested the suspension could be lifted in two weeks.
While it's still unclear when they will be unfrozen, the EPA grants and contracts will be essential for people faced with PFOA contamination in southwestern Vermont and Rensselaer County New York.
"We can imagine grants playing a huge role in addressing PFOA as we go forward, in terms of cleaning up sites and safeguarding public drinking water," said David Bond, associate director for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College
Bond noted remediation can take years, and that it's only been one since the local PFOA crisis hit: The toxic chemical, formerly used to make Teflon, was found in a North Bennington groundwater last February; Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the EPA, told Hoosick Falls, N.Y. residents to not drink their contaminated tap water in late 2015.
Hoosick Falls Mayor David Borge acknowledged media reports that EPA staff have been instructed to temporarily suspend issuing task orders or work assignments to contractors. But he said he did not think it would impact the village.
"We're assuming that this is a temporary situation, which will be resolved once the new EPA administration is in place," Borge said on Wednesday. "As such, we do not anticipate it will affect activities in Hoosick Falls in the short-term."
Borge said the village still expects to receive a brownfield cleanup and assessment grant it applied to late last year. He noted the EPA is still considering whether to include the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic site on McCaffrey Street to the federal Superfund list.
"EPA typically adds sites to the federal Superfund listing in March and we have not been made aware that this schedule has been modified," Borge said.
President Donald Trump signed a directive shortly after his inauguration last week that ordered a "regulatory freeze pending review" for all federal agency rules that had been finalized, but have not yet taken effect. That includes about 30 proposed rules under the EPA, outlined in a notice to be published in the Federal Register on Thursday.
The Associated Press reviewed emails sent to EPA staff, which detail the banning of press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency's social media accounts. Still active is the EPA's website on Hoosick Falls, where elevated levels of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, turned up in public and private water supplies. But social media accounts for the EPA and Regions 1 and 2 have not been active since last week
Grants and contracts are meant to "build local capacity" so communities can address contamination, Bond said. Billions of dollars are spent each year: Bond referenced a recent ProPublica report that stated the EPA awarded $1.4 billion in contracts and $9.6 billion in grants in 2013. The agency had a total budget of $8.6 million in 2016, representing only operating costs. EPA grants have played a major role in cleaning up PCBs in New York, he said.
The closest thing to a "blanket freeze" under a previous administration came after Ronald Reagan, he said.
"I don't think it was this extensive, but there was an antipathy and agenda to cut back on environmental governance." Bond said.
In Bennington, one Superfund site is currently under review: An EPA-hired contractor was surveying monitor wells at the former Jard Company Inc. site on Bowen Road, where a $1.9 million cleanup project for PCBs was completed in 2007.
Linda Elliott, environmental analyst with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said she was unsure of how the grant and contract freezes will impact that project.
Phoebe A. Cohen, assistant professor of geosciences at Williams College, said: "While we don't know how this will specifically affect the region's PFOA issue yet, I fear that this blanket freeze on EPA grants and contracts is just the beginning of a roll-back in environmental protections that have served our nation and our communities for decades, to the point where many of us don't remember things like smog, acid rain, and polluted rivers."
Cohen continued: "Restricting access to government funds will make it harder for states, municipalities, schools, and non-profit organizations to do research on and seek solutions to issues like PFOA water contamination."
"We're in a weird time, when political decisions are being made without scientific expertise," said Shaina Kasper with the Toxics Action Center. The Vermont State Director for the non-profit environmental advocacy organization , she called a blanket freeze of this size "unprecedented."
PFOA was relatively unknown in the northeast a year ago, Kasper said. Now, she works with some half-a-dozen community groups in four states. She said her organization expects it will be found elsewhere.
"We need to be ready for it," she said.
Material for the Associated Press was used in this story.
Reach staff writer Edward Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111 or @edamon_banner.