Our opinion: Better late than never on PFAS

Rebecca Salem tests the pH from a water sample taken from the West River. Howard Weiss-Tisman/Reformer

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Southern Vermont, especially the Bennington region, has paid a high price for the release of PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), such as PFOA, into its environment. A bill approved by the state House this week to assure the chemicals are kept out of our drinking water will hopefully begin to address that legacy statewide.

PFAS represents a family of chemicals which were used in a wide variety of products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, and cosmetics. They are suspected of a number of adverse health risks, including an increased risk of cancer, at relatively low concentrations.

The trouble is that these substances don't easily break down in the environment, but dissolve easily in water.

That's been the experience in Bennington, where years of lackluster enforcement of environmental regulations under governors of both parties, along with a shortage of any scientific knowledge about the effects of these common chemicals, led to the wide-spread airborne release of PFOA by ChemFab Corp.

PFOA was used in the manufacture of liquid Teflon, which ChemFab used to coat fiberglass and other fabrics, drying those at high temperature. After the chemical settled to earth from the factory stacks, it seeped into the groundwater and contaminated private wells.

Contamination around two former ChemFab factories in Bennington was determined by the state to be the source of widespread pollution in groundwater and several hundred local wells. Earlier this month, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which assumed ChemFab's assets just before closing the Bennington plant in 2002, finalized a settlement with the state in which it agreed to pay the cost of connecting PFOA-impacted property owners to clean sources of drinking water.

The total cost is of this work is estimated at $40 million to $50 million, almost of which the company has agreed to pay.

The bill, S.49, establishes regulatory monitoring of drinking water and the establishment of allowable maximum levels. It also requires leachate from landfills to be tested and treated for polyfluoroalkyl substances before discharge into the waters of the state.

With the numerous complaints about stack emissions and odors around the North Bennington ChemFab plant when in operation, state officials in the late 1990s knew or should have known that ChemFab wasn't meeting its regulatory mandate for testing and reducing emissions. But the steady employment ChemFab provided in a region where blue-collar jobs had grown scarce seems to have taken precedence over protecting the environment and the health of Vermonters.

The state missed opportunity after opportunity to make things right, until widespread damage was done to the environment and to those who drank contaminated well water.

The residents as well as the state and the company are paying today for that regulatory timidity, and will continue to pay for some time to come.

The newly passed bill can help eliminate such mistakes in the future. A group statement from S.49's supporters, including state Sen. Brian Campion, has it right: "Vermonters have the right to expect government to protect them from poisons in our public waters, especially those poisons that are invisible, odorless, and tasteless — and that's what S.49 does."


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