Bennington’s PFOA story among those highlighted at EPA summit

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Note: This story was revised at 8:30 a.m. on June 26, 2018.

EXETER, N.H. — Residents of Bennington participated in the first of several regional summits on PFOA/PFOS and related chemicals that the federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to sponsor over the coming year.

The New England gathering, which included both a public forum Monday and a series of workshops Tuesday involving environmental officials from the states, the federal government, municipal officials and others, is being held at Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire. More than 200 people from the region attended the opening session.

Hundreds of Bennington residents were impacted by PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination found in private wells in early 2016 around two former ChemFab Corp. factories that once coated fiberglass fabrics with Teflon. Those included David Bond, of the ongoing Understanding PFOA project at Bennington College, who gave one of several presentations before the gathered federal and state officials.

Bond said it was fitting that he followed a speaker from Merrimack, New Hampshire, because ChemFab was founded in Bennington in 1968 and maintained a factory there until 2002, when its Vermont operations were moved to Merrimack by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.

The global firm had acquired ChemFab two years earlier and moved the operations amid complaints from neighbors about stack emissions and attempts at the state level to strengthen regulatory requirements. Saint-Gobain still operates facilities in Merrimack.

One point Bond made was that different regulations in every state and different levels of enforcement have made it much more difficult to address the complex challenges posed by PFOA. He recommended uniform, national approaches guided from the federal level, including legal action if necessary by the Department of Justice against polluters.

Bond contrasted the slower, less vigorous response the New York state to PFOA contamination in the Hoosick Falls, New York, area, about a year before PFOA was discovered in nearby North Bennington in 2016.

“I think it is fair to say New York fumbled the response to PFOA contamination,” Bond said, although he praised a recent lawsuit filed by that state in an attempt to hold companies that released the chemicals into the atmosphere responsible for the costs of dealing the contamination.

“I think of Vermont as a model for how to respond,” he said.

That included an immediate visit by former Gov. Peter Shumlin and other officials, repeated information sessions conducted by Vermont officials in Bennington and a website that posts updates and information about the PFOA response, Bond said.

Exposure to PFOA and similar chemicals, primarily through drinking water, has been associated through studies with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Seeking input

In all, a half dozen community organizations from around New England that have been impacted by PFOA/PFOS or similar chemicals in drinking water sources gave presentations before EPA Region 1 Administrator Alexandra Dunn, Peter Grevatt, the EPA's director of the Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water and the other officials.

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The sources of the contamination in the communities differed, including a former Air National Guard base in the Westfield, Massachusetts, area to a toxic waste dumping site near Greenland, New Hampshire, to a former firefighting training facility in Barnstable, Massachusetts. But each situation involved, like Bennington’s experience, a realization over the past few years that a source of pollution dating back decades has contaminated private and municipal water supplies.

Dunn said the EPA wants to hear the public’s concerns and experiences as the agency considers new drinking water standards and regulation. The agency also plans to hold summits in North Carolina, central Pennsylvania, Colorado and other sites.

Before the summit, Dunn had said, "We are listening to the public's concerns and bringing key stakeholders together to improve our understanding of these chemicals. EPA drinking water experts, research scientists, and regional officials will attend and speak at this event to ensure the public understands what we know and what we're doing. Our continued work with states and communities will ensure that, from the federal to the local level, we can quickly respond to and address the concerns shared by New England citizens."

People who could not attend are encouraged to submit written statements to the public docket at https://www.regulations.gov/, she said. They should enter docket number OW-2018-0270.

Used for decades

The chemicals were first used in the 1940s, beginning with the production of Teflon and other non-stick substances, which were manufactured using PFOA and similar compounds. These substances have in recent years emerged as a serious, widespread and previously little understood pollution threat in drinking water sources across the nation.

The highly soluble chemicals can be spread through spills, dump sites or through factory stack emissions, working their way into groundwater or reservoir water sources, where it is believed they will not dissipate for many years, if ever.

The EPA last week released an 850-plus-page draft report https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp200.pdf that indicated the standards for the level of PFOA in drinking water should be lowered significantly. The EPA has set a safe drinking water standard at 70 parts per trillion, while Vermont set its standard at 20 parts per trillion.

Both might need to be lowered, according to the draft report.

A comment period has begun for that draft report, prepared by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And the EPA, which held a national summit in Washington in May on the threat from these chemicals, is now holding regional summits as it considers new standards and regulation to deal with the threats posed and the development of effective environmental cleanup methods.

PFOA and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), often associated with firefighting foam and found around airports of fire personnel training sites, are only two of thousands of similar industrial chemicals developed for industrial uses, Vermont officials have said.

As a group, these perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals are known as PFAS. The New England event is called the EPA's first PFAS Community Summit.

More information on the chemicals and the community engagement process is available at https://www.epa.gov/pfas.

According to Shaina Kasper, Vermont state director of the regional Toxics Action Center, a participant in the summit, "We've seen over and over again over our 30 years how polluters will go to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for their messes and how government bureaucracies can be too slow to do the right thing. Impacted community groups across the country were barred entrance to the National Leadership Summit, so this is the best chance for impacted communities to have their perspectives incorporated into the National PFAS management plan EPA will release this fall."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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