BENNINGTON — A $34 million agreement has been reached to settle a class-action suit in U.S. District Court over PFOA contamination in Bennington area wells and elevated levels in the blood of residents, the plaintiffs announced Thursday morning.
The proposed settlement calls for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics to pay a total of $34.15 million to compensate property owners for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination and to provide continued medical monitoring for those who have higher than normal background levels of PFOA in their blood.
Saint-Gobain was the last owner of two former ChemFab Corp. plants in town that are considered the source of the once commonly used industrial chemical, which was spread through exhaust stacks over a wide area, then worked into the soil and groundwater.
“This settlement provides significant compensation and medical monitoring to the Bennington community affected by the PFOA contamination, and we strongly support it,” said James Sullivan, who is acting as a spokesperson for the named suit plaintiffs and class representatives. “We especially want to initiate the medical monitoring program as soon as possible.”
PFOA has been associated with kidney, testicular and other cancers, ulcerative colitis, thyroid diseases, pregnancy-induced hypertension and high cholesterol. Levels of PFOA in the blood are also known to decline slowly over many years.
“There are something in the range of 2,400 properties in the property [suit] class, consisting of over 8,000 individuals,” Emily Joselson, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in an email Thursday. “The exposure class is smaller because many in the property class were on town water, and so most of them didn’t consume PFOA-contaminated water.”
She added, “We estimate that around 500 people got [state] Department of Health blood tests when they were offered back in 2017-18, indicating elevated levels of PFOA in their blood. More, who weren’t tested back then, but who drank water likely contaminated with PFOA, will be eligible for free blood testing in the first 90 days of the Medical Monitoring Program.”
Up to $6 million is provided in the agreement for a medical monitoring program.
COURT APPROVAL NEEDED
The court first must approve the settlement, including the method proposed for allocating the money, before the settlement funds will be available and the medical monitoring program is established, Sullivan, Joselson and attorney David Silver, also representing the plaintiffs, said in a release.
Under the settlement agreement, compensation to the property class will be supervised by a court-approved special master, with amounts for individual property owners proposed to be based on several factors, including the value of the property before the contamination was discovered and whether the owners drank from a PFOA contaminated well.
The medical monitoring program, also supervised by a court-approved administrator, will provide free testing and monitoring for certain medical conditions. The program will be based at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center using local physicians, but arrangements will also be made for eligible class members who have moved away.
It is expected that the court will review the settlement documents and schedule a court date for a final approval hearing. Judge Geoffrey Crawford is presiding.
Peter Clark, communications manager with Saint-Gobain, said in an email, “After nearly two years of ongoing discussion, Saint-Gobain is pleased to reach a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs in the Vermont class-action lawsuit.”
He added, “Since we first learned about the presence of PFAS in Bennington, Saint-Gobain made it clear we would take a leadership position on the issue, even though our Bennington plant has not been in operation since 2002. We believe these settlements and the extensive remediation work already completed are indicative of that commitment.”
State Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both Bennington Democrats, have taken a leading role in legislative efforts to address this and similar environmental contamination issues.
“It has been a tumultuous five years since the discovery of PFOA in the drinking water of so many Bennington and North Bennington residents,” said Sears, who lives in the state-identified contamination area.
He added that “we remain mindful that many of our constituents in Pownal have not had their [similar PFOA] situation resolved, so the work continues.”
Contamination was detected in wells in Pownal around a former Warren Wire/General Cable Corp. factory.
Sears said of efforts in the Legislature, “Senator Campion and I are once again introducing a bill to make medical monitoring a liability of the polluter, not the taxpayer or citizen who has been harmed.”
Campion said Thursday he is “very pleased that the class-action suit is settled, and I hope it brings some relief to our constituents who, by no fault of their own, had their lives turned upside down by having their water and soil contaminated by PFOA.”
The settlement, in addition to the completion of the water line extensions, “is very good news for our region, but the work isn’t over,” he said. “We need to make the lives of those impacted in Pownal whole, while also taking steps to prevent future pollution.”
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said in an email Thursday, “I am happy that a settlement has been reached. Although I haven’t seen a copy, it appears to address the concerns raised by those who filed suit.”
Saint-Gobain also has agreed over the past three years to two consent agreements with the state Agency of Natural Resources to provide more than $50 million to extend Bennington and North Bennington water system lines to properties with wells contaminated with PFOA and to cover other expenses borne by the state in dealing with the pollution.
The water line extension projects are now completed, with municipal water service extended to some 445 properties. In all, about 21 miles of water mains and 15 miles of service lines were added to municipal water systems as part of the corrective action funded by Saint-Gobain.
Gov. Phil Scott, environmental officials and local officials and lawmakers are expected to mark completion of that work Monday at 11 a.m. at the water system pump house on Chapel Road in Bennington.
TOWARD A SETTLEMENT
In a joint declaration concerning the proposed settlement filed with the court, Joselson, Silver and attorney Gary Davis, representing the plaintiffs, outlined some of the steps that led to a preliminary agreement with the company.
They said John Schraven, an experienced mediator who was recommended by the court and accepted by the parties, was named settlement master for the case in April 2017.
Following certification of the suit as a class-action and other decisions on motions regarding aspects of the case, the court’s first settlement conference was held in January 2020, the attorneys wrote, and the parties then began negotiations with Schraven’s assistance.
Negotiations continued in 2021, they said, until the parties reached an agreement in principle on July 9. Further negotiations led recently to the proposed settlement agreement with Saint-Gobain.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the agreement would involve the establishment of a court-supervised medical monitoring program funded by Saint-Gobain up to a total of $6 million over 15 years. The details of the program have been developed by the plaintiffs’ medical monitoring expert, Dr. Alan Ducatman.
With the court’s approval, the program will be administered by C. Gentle III, who has experience in administering medical monitoring programs, they wrote.
The class representatives in the suit included Sullivan, Leslie Addison, Ronald Hausthor, Gordon Garrison, Ted Crawford, Linda Crawford, Billy J. Knight, and William S. Sumner, who died Aug. 21 after a brief illness, the attorneys wrote.
The representatives “have been fully engaged in this litigation,” according to the filing, and the attorneys proposed they receive an incentive award of $10,000 per person, with that amount also going to Sumner’s estate.
After purchasing the business in 2000, Saint-Gobain closed the last Bennington ChemFab plant in 2002 and shifted the fabric coating operations to a New Hampshire facility.
Fiberglass and other fabric materials were coated at the ChemFab sites with liquid Teflon and dried at high temperature, with venting through the tall roof stacks.
The contamination in hundreds of Bennington wells was revealed in testing that began in 2016, after similar contamination was documented in nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
Since the early 2000s, PFOA and other chemicals in the PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) group have been detected in groundwater and other water supplies near industrial sites around the nation and world. It is suspected that almost every human on the planet has at least a trace of PFAS in their blood.
The chemicals were used for decades since the 1940s in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications, including in non-stick cooking utensils and waterproofing and tape products.
ChemFab was known worldwide for producing the coated fiberglass used in athletic stadium domes, such as the Carrier Dome in Syracuse and the Pontiac Silverdome.
The discovery of widespread contamination and an association between PFOA and certain diseases and conditions was brought to national attention about 20 years ago largely because of a suit brought by Cincinnati-based attorney Rob Bilott on behalf of thousands of residents of West Virginia and Ohio living around DuPont plants whose water had been contaminated with PFOA or other PFAS chemicals.
Bilott’s involvement in what became a class-action suit later served as the basis for “Dark Waters,” a 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as the attorney.
Bilott also appeared at a conference on PFOA contamination held at Bennington College in 2017.
Also in the past few years, former Oldcastle Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson wrote a play about a PFOA crisis in a fictional town that resembles Bennington. His “Water, Water Everywhere” premiered at the Bennington theater in 2019.
And a documentary by Hoosick Falls native Victor Pytko examines PFOA pollution sites in the village and in several communities in two other states.