How far did airborne emissions of PFOA travel once they left the stacks at the ChemFab facility in North Bennington? Small fortunes now ride on this simple question, as do the hopes of many families desperate to secure clean drinking water for their homes in Shaftsbury and Bennington.
The company line is clear. According to Saint-Gobain, PFOA emissions from ChemFab were minimal and confined to the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the plant. While refraining from admitting responsibility, Saint-Gobain has nonetheless agreed to provide $20 million for public water line extensions to impacted homes in those areas of North Bennington and the Silk Road area of Bennington (Corrective Action Area I).
For the contaminated neighborhoods outside of this designated area, however, Saint-Gobain has been far more miserly. Although PFOA has been found in alarming levels in residential wells across Shaftsbury and Bennington, Saint-Gobain refuses to help provide clean public drinking water to those homes and recently even withdrew support for the maintenance of POET filtration systems in those homes. Pointing fingers at the landfill, at the ubiquity of PFOA, and even at local residents, Saint-Gobain has spent untold sums spreading blame for PFOA groundwater contamination in Shaftsbury and Bennington (Corrective Action Area II).
Our research suggests Saint-Gobain's use of Corrective Action Area I and Corrective Action Area II may be a microscopic look at a wide-angle problem. While the legal effect is clear, the scientific basis of such a distinction seems increasingly dubious. Downwind of the ChemFab plant, our research has begun to identify a distinct plume of soil with elevated levels of PFOA stretching over 10 miles eastward. Corrective Action Area I and II add up to about 12 square miles. The plume we have begun to identify covers roughly 120 square miles of southeastern Vermont.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, we have been researching PFOA contamination in New York and Vermont since 2016. Our project, "Understanding PFOA," equips the science classrooms at Bennington College to produce independent data on community concerns. For the past year, we've taken up the question of airborne deposition of PFOA.
Talking with our students, we wondered if the Green Mountains might have acted like a wall for the emissions of ChemFab. As PFOA binds to organic matter in soil, we wondered if the Bennington-facing slopes of the Green Mountains might contain measureable levels of PFOA? Bald Mountain, home to the popular White Rocks hiking destination and directly downwind of ChemFab, offered an ideal place to begin. Lying some five miles to the east of ChemFab and rising some 2,000 feet above ChemFab and the landfill, evidence of PFOA on Bald Mountain would suggest a far more extensive pattern of airborne deposition of PFOA than current models allow for.
Last year, with the permission of the National Forest Service, we collected a handful of soil and water samples on Bald Mountain. We were surprised by what we found. Not only did we find relatively high levels of PFOA in the soil and water on the western flank of Bald Mountain, we also found them on the far side of the mountain. Did emissions from the ChemFab not only reach Bald Mountain but actually travel further into the Green Mountains?
This spring, teams of Bennington faculty and students hiked up and down the Green Mountains and Taconic Mountains collecting soil samples everywhere from the Long Trail to Merck Forest. As laboratory results came back, we have been struck by two things: 1) PFOA is everywhere in our region's soil, and 2) There seems to be a massive plume of elevated PFOA levels in the soil extending eastward from ChemFab and into the Green Mountains.
Everywhere we've tested for PFOA in the soil, we've found PFOA. Everywhere. At relatively low levels, PFOA contamination is nearly universal in our region. Saint-Gobain makes a similar argument in their recent "Conceptual Site Model" report. There, Saint-Gobain suggests that high background levels of PFOA make it nearly impossible to identify which parts were caused by local polluters and which parts were caused by distant ones.
While the presence of low levels of PFOA in our region's soils is ubiquitous, our research has also begun to define an enormous plume of anomalously contaminated soil directly downwind of ChemFab. For example, 18 soil samples collected in clusters around Grout Pond, Lye Brook Falls, Smokey House Reserve, and Merck Forest averaged out to about 1,500 parts per trillion of PFOA. Within the dominant wind direction to the east, however, 18 soil samples collected between Bald Mountain and Woodford averaged out to about 5,250 parts per trillion of PFOA. This is a significant difference, one that strongly suggests a new geography of airborne deposition of PFOA emanating from ChemFab.
Although much work remains to delineate the full reach of this plume, we are starting to think emissions of PFOA from ChemFab (which, on this scale, may have been joined by the emissions of the Saint-Gobain plant in Hoosick Falls) extend from North Bennington to Woodford and may cover up to 120 square miles. That is, a modest plastics plant in North Bennington may have contaminated an area larger than Boston.
This scale, while shocking to the working definition of the problem, is actually in line with unfolding research on PFOA emissions elsewhere in New England. A new report from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has found airborne deposition of PFOA from the Saint-Gobain plant in Merrimack, N.H. — the ChemFab 2.0 plant that emitted PFOA for about a decade — contaminated residential wells throughout a 60-square-mile area.
At this scale, PFOA contamination may be a problem one cannot simply clean up. In this, the soils of southeastern Vermont are coming into focus as a reservoir of PFOA, one that may continue to leach PFOA into natural springs, streams, and groundwater for the foreseeable future. Outside of another ice age scouring our region's soil away, there is no method to remediate contaminated soil on this scale. This is a problem that will be with us for decades if not centuries. Our state and municipal leaders would be wise to recognize this unfortunate fact and aggressively seek resources adequate to the task of managing PFOA contamination not only in the short-term but for coming generations.
Saint-Gobain generates about $2 billion in profits a year, nearly three times the size of the General Fund of Vermont. It's high time Saint-Gobain end its strategy of employing "Corrective Action Areas" to divide our community, ranking our neighborhoods into those worthy of clean public drinking water and those unworthy. As our research makes clear, we are all in this together. Saint-Gobain needs to accept responsibility for the full extent of contamination caused by ChemFab and get to work making our community whole again.
A full write-up of our research and findings can be found at: www.bennington.edu/PFOA under "Regional Soil Study Results."
David Bond, Janet Foley, and Tim Schroeder are faculty members at Bennington College. Together, they run an NSF-funded research project on PFOA.