Bennington PFOA inspired national coalition
Shaina Kasper, director of Toxics Action Center initiatives in Vermont and New Hampshire, said what became known as the National PFAS Contamination Coalition coalesced about a year after her organization responded to the discovery of PFOA in Bennington in early 2016.
"February 24, 2016, was really my first experience with PFAS," Kasper said.
That was when well testing around two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington revealed elevated to high levels of PFOA, which was associated with the Teflon the factories used for years to coat fiberglass and other fabrics.
The New England-based Toxics Action Center, which assists communities facing pollution problems, had heard of similar PFOA contamination in the Hoosick Falls, N.Y., area, Kasper said, but the pollution in Bennington quickly immersed her and the center in what emerged as a significant environmental and health crisis.
Exposure to the group of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has been associated through medical studies with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
National group formed
Now a coordinator for the national coalition, Kasper said there are representatives from 18 communities involved, from 11 states and the territory of Guam. That includes environmental groups and towns without a formal entity but involved through individual residents.
Among the goals, she said, are to support residents facing PFAS pollution and related medical issues, provide information and connections to scientific, political and other sources, and "to build a broader, stronger national group to advocate for change."
The latter means pushing for new regulations for industrial chemical use and emissions, updated drinking water standards, and holding polluters responsible for environmental damage and health effects.
The coalition adopted its name around the time of a regional summit meeting of group representatives at Northeastern University during July 2017, Kasper said.
Among approximately 200 attendees were people from organizations called GreenCAPE, based on Cape Cod; Merrimack (N.H.) Citizens for Clean Water; Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves (Westfield, Mass.); and Greenland Safe Water Action (Greenland, N.H.).
Ironically, one of the communities involved in the coalition only through individual residents, rather than a formal organization, is Bennington. One reason, those involved said, is that the response from the state of Vermont has been timely, helpful and continuous compared to other states.
"I think of Vermont as a model for how to respond," David Bond, a professor at Bennington College involved in the school's Understanding PFOA project, said during a recent conference on PFAS issues.
He spoke at the first of several planned regional information-gathering sessions, held June 25-26 in Exeter, N.H., and sponsored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Bond said the rapid response in Bennington from administration and Vermont environmental and health officials contrasted with the slow or tepid reaction of other states suddenly facing myriad PFAS-related problems.
Kasper said most of the coalition groups have had to demand answers from government officials, as well as adequate testing of dump sites, private or municipal water systems, and medical testing for those exposed to PFAS chemicals.
Among those listed on the coalition website are groups based in Colorado, Alaska, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, including Hoosick and Hoosick Falls; the state of Washington, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
Telling their story
A half dozen community group members gave presentations during the EPA summit last month in Exeter, describing their experiences.
For example, Greenland Safe Water Action fought for water testing after it was revealed a former landfill and federal Superfund site in a nearby community contained hazardous materials that had contaminated groundwater sources.
And the Westfield group fought to get local officials to adequately address PFOS contamination of municipal and private wells, stemming from firefighting foam use at Barnes Air National Guard base.
In recent months, Kasper said, PFOS (found in the foam) has begun to dominate the discussion among affected communities and environmental and health officials.
Contamination sites around the nation include airports where foam was used for training or in emergencies, including around the Stewart Air National Guard base near Newburgh, N.Y., and at firefighter training sites, such as one linked to well contamination on Cape Cod.
Meanwhile, in Bennington and in Merrimack, N.H., where the Vermont ChemFab operations were moved in 2002 after the company was acquired by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the predominate issue is PFOA in soil and groundwater.
Just touched the surface
"Overall, I think we are just touching the surface of what this problem is going to be," Kasper said. "So many communities don't even know they've been polluted."
In some cases, she said, there is a reluctance among officials to recognize the extent of the pollution and the costs of addressing it, or reluctance to take on the large business and employer that is the source of the PFAS.
One thing is certain, she said: "Every place they think they will find PFAS, they do find them."
The chemicals were first used in the 1940s, beginning in products with nonstick surfaces, such as Teflon pans. It is estimated that nearly every human on the planet now has at least a trace of PFAS in their blood, as it can be spread long distances through the atmosphere or through contact with common consumer products containing them. PFAS in drinking water over time has been shown to significantly raise levels of the chemical in the blood.
The EPA now is gathering input from residents, local officials and experts around the U.S. and is expected to consider revisions to safe drinking water and other standards, along with recommendations for how to respond to PFAS contamination and clean up the environment.
A comprehensive PFAS health study also is planned by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, to focus on a number of contamination sites around the country.
Information on the PFAS Contramination Coalition can be found at https://pfasproject.net
The EPA has a PFAS informational page at www.epa.gov/pfas
The Toxics Action Center website is at https://toxicsaction.org
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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