Lawmakers urge close review of Energizer shutdown

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BENNINGTON — The county's two state senators are asking environmental officials to monitor the pending closure of the Energizer battery factory here to account for any legacy pollution that could require remediation.

According to Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, the concern is to avoid something similar to the PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination left behind from two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington, the last of which closed in 2002.

That pollution was spread primarily through exhaust stacks over a wide area of town and contaminated soil and groundwater, and eventually drinking water in hundreds of wells.

"As Energizer works with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources on a closure plan, it is important that the process is public and transparent," said Campion and Sen. Dick Sears in an email.

The lawmakers added, "The Bennington community learned a hard lesson with ChemFab. We are confident that Energizer and the ANR will respect the need of our community to be informed and to perform proper due diligence, ensuring the health of our community and our natural environment are not compromised."

Reached on Tuesday, Charles "Chuck" Schwer, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Waste Management and Prevention Division, said the state had just received official notice of the company's plan to move the longtime Bennington battery manufacturing operations to Portage, Wisconsin, to combine that with a facility there.

The notice is the first step in a comprehensive closure process, Schwer said, and will be followed by the company being required to develop closure plans for the mill complex off Gage and Scott streets for review by environmental officials.

The closure plan would specify steps to remove or otherwise deal with hazardous materials on site; testing of structures and property for areas of contamination, and then certifying that the plan has been carried out 90 days prior to the plant shutdown.

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Sometimes an owner might be required to hire an independent third-party firm to help certify aspects of the closure plan, he said.

"We will pay pretty close attention to this," Schwer said. "We don't want what happened over on Water Street [the largest ChemFab factory] to happen. We are a lot more rigorous in our review [than in 2002]."

Schwer said state waste management regulations for dealing with hazardous material as former manufacturing sites have been updated more than once over the past 10 to 15 years.

Past issues

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Citing specific areas of concern with the Energizer factory site, Sears and Campion said in a release: "Energizer reported a release of chlorinated solvents in 2007, and we understand the company monitors groundwater for contamination from that event. We have written to the agency requesting an update on what this monitoring has found or not found. Additionally, given that heavy metals like cadmium are used in manufacturing certain batteries, we have asked ANR to test the water and soil for this and other possible contaminants."

Schwer said the division is aware of ongoing remediation work for groundwater and soil contamination issues on the factory sites, and the company would be responsible for maintaining such efforts after the factory closure date, until the cleanup process is completed.

Campion, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said lawmakers will look for certification that the chemicals and other materials the battery company has used have been accounted for, and that there are financial resources in place to deal with any legacy pollution issues.

Closing in stages

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The closure of the Energizer plant won't be immediate, a company spokeswoman said shortly after local officials learned last month that the company will shutter an operation that dates back to Union Carbide ownership, beginning in the early 1940s.

Nikki Eaves, of Energizer Holdings Inc., said in an email that the closure will be done in phases and completed in early 2021. Operations will continue though 2020, she said.

Energizer acquired Rayovac earlier this year, which Eaves said has a specialty battery manufacturing plant in Portage.

She said that as part of the integration of the firms, Energizer determined that the total demand for the specialty batteries being produced could be manufactured more efficiency at one site, and that the Portage facility is best suited to produce the combined volume of the two current operations.

Eaves could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the environmental aspects of the shutdown plan.

The Bennington facility currently has about 90 employees, down from around 200 five years ago.

Those numbers are far below peak employment levels under Union Carbide ownership of more than 700 during 1970s.

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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