Final piece announced in $50M-plus agreement to deal on PFOA contamination
BENNINGTON — A final settlement to provide clean drinking water to the remaining Bennington properties affected by PFOA contamination was announced Wednesday morning by Gov. Phil Scott, other state officials and lawmakers.
The proposed consent agreement with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which will now be subject to a 30-day public comment period, covers extension of municipal water lines or well-related improvements for 245 homes in the eastern section of the contamination zone.
Saint-Gobain is considered by the state the responsible party for perfluooctanoic acid pollution related to two former ChemFab Corp. factories here.
With members of the Bennington County delegation standing behind him, Scott said during a press conference at the Statehouse that this final settlement builds upon the $20 million agreement the state and Saint-Gobain reached in 2017 covering homes in the western sector of the contamination zone around the former factories.
"Since PFOA was discovered in Bennington wells, leaders across state and local government — under multiple administrations — have been working to restore safe drinking water to every resident, and I'm pleased to take another step forward today," Scott said.
In total, the overall settlement is expected to extend municipal waterlines to 470 homes or businesses in Bennington and North Bennington with contaminated wells. Water line work in the western section is essentially complete, and work in the eastern sector is expected to begin this summer and be completed within two years.
"I thank the people of Bennington for their continued trust, patience and support," Scott said. "I also want to thank the Agency of Natural Resources, the Attorney General and his team; the Bennington delegation and local leaders for their hard work, as well as Governor [Peter] Shumlin, Attorney General [William] Sorrell and their teams for their work at the start of this process. It has truly been a team effort, as we're all committed to reaching the best possible resolution for the impacted communities."
Saint-Gobain agreed to fund a significant portion of the waterline extensions, officials said, and be responsible for long-term monitoring, the drilling of replacement wells in some areas, and the long-term operations and maintenance of in-home filtering treatment systems.
The state officials valued the overall settlement with Saint-Gobain at approximately $50 million to $60 million. Pending final state budget approval, the administration has agreed to commit $4.7 million from lawsuit settlement funds, a state drinking water revolving loan program and reimbursements from Saint-Gobain for past state expenses in dealing with the pollution, according to Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
The state funding will allow extension of waterlines to the maximum extent feasible, including into areas where the company had balked at funding new lines, officials have said.
"This is a major milestone in a long road," Walke said, thanking state officials and lawmakers for their efforts and the residents for having patience through the long process dating to early February 2016.
He also thanked Saint-Gobain for engaging in negotiations, resulting in a settlement much sooner than if the matter had ended up in court.
"I want to first thank the people of Bennington and North Bennington," said Attorney General T.J. Donovan. "I want to thank them for their trust in government — this is a rarity in today's politics. The folks trusted that officials in government — from both parties, and across state agencies — would work together to deliver what they said."
He also thanked the entire Bennington delegation for their "relentless" work on behalf of constituents in pushing for solutions to the crisis, which was discovered through well water testing in early 2016.
Speaking on behalf of the local delegation, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, recalled the shock of discovering hundreds of wells were contaminated with the industrial chemical used in the production of Teflon, which was used for years by ChemFab to coat fiberglass and other fabrics and dry them at high temperatures.
Much of the pollution was believed by state environmental officials to have spread through the air from ChemFab stacks in North Bennington and Bennington, where the company operated from 1968 to 2002.
Saint-Gobain acquired the company in 2000 and moved the Bennington operations to New Hampshire two years later.
The settlement is "a tremendous step forward," said Sears, who lives within the contamination zone in North Bennington.
"The people of Bennington have been incredibly patient, and I want to thank them first and foremost," Sears said. "I am also grateful to the whole state and local government team for going above and beyond to help the community achieve long-term clean drinking water as quickly as possible."
He added, “We recognize that this is not the end as the civil action is pending [against the company in U.S. District Court] that would help make our neighbors whole for the damage done. We continue to support that effort as well.”
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said following the conference, “I'm incredibly proud of Vermont today and deeply grateful to my constituents for their patience, as well as to the many people who helped make this happen. This problem spanned two administrations and three different legislative sessions. During all this time, I felt nothing but support from my colleagues.”
Campion also recognized the work of former Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren, saying she was “one of the first people in Bennington after the contamination was found [in 2016]. Her steady leadership kicked off this important process.”
Lora Block, who lives in the eastern contamination sector, said, “I’m very grateful the state and Saint-Gobain have finally reached a settlement that will bring municipal water to those of us on the east side of Bennington. We have had to wait much too long for this to be worked out and the wait has been stressful. I think we could tolerate the temporary solutions of filtration and bottled water only so long.”
Block also praised the work of state environmental officials, saying, "I’d like to thank specifically several state staff members who have shepherded us through this and personally made it easier to deal with: John Schmeltzer, Richard Spiese and Peter Walke. They have been honest, forthcoming, sympathetic and helpful. They have made sure we’ve been heard and listened to our complaints.”
"We are so lucky to live in a state that really cares about its people," said Bennington Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell. "If not for the dogged efforts of the state of Vermont, our local legislators, town staff, and local contractors, Bennington College researchers, and patient but fully engaged citizens, hundreds of homes and thousands of people would be facing a terrible, ongoing health threat."
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Wednesday in an email, "I am very pleased to hear that an agreement has been reached between the state and Saint-Gobain to provide clean potable water to the home owners in the northeast quadrant of the community impacted by PFOA contamination. While not every home will be connected to municipal water, every effort will be made to provide a permanent solution for every impacted home. I look forward to the start of construction and thank those impacted for their patience and understanding as this process has unfolded."
Dina Pokedoff, spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain, said in an emailed statement, “Saint-Gobain is pleased to have reached an agreement with the state of Vermont regarding [the eastern contamination sector] and in reaching our shared goal: access to potable drinking water for the residents of Bennington.”
She added, “Since first learning about PFOA in certain groundwaters in Bennington, we have strived to take a leadership position in regard to this issue and work collaboratively with local and state authorities. We will continue to work in cooperation with officials as the work gets underway.”
The settlement agreement is subject to a 30-day public comment period. Residents can access the terms of the settlement, as well as find additional information, online at http://dec.vermont.gov/commissioners-office/pfoa.
For residents with questions about the settlement details, Walke said state Department of Environmental Conservation staff members will be available in Bennington from 1 to 7 p.m. on Monday, April 15, and 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16.
The open house periods will be held at the Department of Health Bennington offices at 342 Main St.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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