POWNAL — Hoped-for personal outreach to town residents and public information sessions haven’t been possible because of the COVID-19 epidemic, but state environmental officials last week updated the Select Board on a study of drinking water options for North Pownal village.
Department of Environmental Conservation hydrologist Grahame Bradley and Trish Coppolino, DEC Environmental Program manager, discussed a draft study report last week and the next steps in the process.
The options for providing safe drinking water in the village include continued on-site filtering of private wells found to be contaminated with industrial chemicals; drilling new, deeper wells with tightly sealed casings; creation of a new North Pownal water system, and connecting to another public water system.
A study by Dufresne Group and a subcontractor, Lincoln Applied Geology, working under a state contract awarded in July 2019, was requested by DEC employees in light of the discovery of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) around three former dumping sites in North Pownal and in several private wells.
Recommendations from the study originally were expected by Jan. 1, 2021, but that was pushed back during the epidemic.
The hazardous industrial substances were initially discovered in 2016 around the former Warren Wire/General Cable plant off Route 346, about two miles southeast of North Pownal. That was shortly after similar contamination was verified in North Bennington and before that in the Hoosick Falls, N.Y., area.
About 1,000 feet from the former Pownal factory is the well supplying the Fire District 2 public water system, which was found to have the PFAS group chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) above the state’s 20 parts per trillion level for safe drinking water. The contaminant is being removed from that supply at the wellhead by a carbon filtering system.
After a round of testing of more dozens of private wells in North Pownal, nine were found to have PFAS levels above the state limit, Bradley said. Eight of the nine accepted on-site carbon filtering units, he said, while one owner refused.
Thus far, Bradley said, the cost of the well filtering systems in North Pownal is being picked up by the state, but no decisions have yet been made on how those costs should be handled long-term. That could depend on assessments of which party or parties could be considered responsible by the state for the contamination.
The cost of filtering for the Fire District 2 well system is being picked up by American Premier Underwriters, which insured current owner Mack Molding Co. when it purchased the old factory building primarily for use as a warehouse.
The factory is considered by the state to be the source of that PFAS contamination, which is believed to have emanated from the exhaust stacks of the building and settled in the surrounding soils, eventually working into the groundwater.
The same process of contamination, along with some dumping of wastes, is believed to have occurred where PFAS chemicals were used in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, N.Y., and in former ChemFab Corp. sites in Bennington and North Bennington.
Principals in the former Warren Wire business, which was sold to General Cable Co. in the 1960s, went on to form ChemFab in Bennington in 1968.
In Bennington, the state and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which acquired ChemFab just prior to closing the company’s last Vermont factory in 2002, recently negotiated consent agreements that called for the international company to fund around $50 million in municipal water line extensions and cover other costs to deal with contamination of hundreds of wells.
Retesting of the eight wells being filtered in North Pownal has not detected PFAS chemicals after the water passes through the filtering, Bradley said. The chemicals in that area primarily consisted of PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid). The former was associated with industrial coatings, such as the Teflon that was used at the former Warren Wire/General Cable plant, while PFOS is associated with firefighting foam, tapes and fabric protection substances.
The state tests for five of the thousands of PFAS substances, which together must be below 20 parts per trillion for drinking water.
In addition to the first round of well testing in the village, which will be followed by a second round that could include new sites where the owner wants to participate, the DEC is continuing to investigate three old dumping sites as potential sources of the groundwater contamination.
Being investigated and monitored further, the officials said, are the capped industrial waste landfill at the end of Dean Road, which was created when the former Pownal Tanning Co. factory was razed as the site was cleaned up through a $9 million federal Superfund project; a former refuse dumping site on the nearby property of a gravel operation off Dean Road, and the former tannery lagoon waste site near the town wastewater plant.
Long-term work includes checking a system of monitoring wells to gauge any migration of contaminants around the old dump sites.
The private wells being filtered in North Pownal are in the vicinity of the three former dumping sites.
Coppolino said one reason for considering all options for dealing with PFAS in water supplies is to ensure the efforts are continued over time. PFAS are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals” for their extremely long-term presence in groundwater.
Select Board members were skeptical during the meeting about creating a new well system with water pipes in the village or connecting to the only existing public water system that might be a possibility – the Fire District 2 system.
The Fire District board also has taken a stand against any connection to add North Pownal residents.
Drilling a new well and laying a water line system in the village would be very difficult, said board member Ronald Bisson, just in terms of finding an adequate site to drill the well. Any water system would also have to use filtering and treatments for other reasons, as do most systems, he said.
Bisson added that he believes Vermont’s PFAS level for safe drinking water is “ridiculously low” compared to other states.
He and other board members indicated they believe continued filtering of North Pownal’s contaminated wells is the best option.
Bradley said the study, which is still in draft form, is tasked with presenting all available options, even those that might not prove feasible or practical for the town.
If a new water district were formed in the village, or a connection made to another system, Coppolino said, the state would want to have the support of the town.
Bradley said another point to consider is that the state will want to reclassify the groundwater in the area as Class IV, which is the lowest grade, with Class I being a pristine drinking water supply.
A lower grade would likely mean new drinking water wells will not be allowed or would require special authorization from the state.
Fire District 2 formed in the 1990s after a private reservoir water system in south Pownal could no longer meet federal drinking water standards. At the time, the district received grants and loans to drill the well and upgrade the system, and the more than 100 customers are responsible for loans, maintenance and other costs.
Ironically, there was a Fire District 1 here when the former North Pownal textile and later tanning factory maintained a village water system few by a reservoir at the base of the Taconic Range along the New York border. But that system was discarded after the company entered bankruptcy in the late 1980s.
There are about 330 households in North Pownal village.