News Analysis: Upon investigation, Saint-Gobain's claims prove wildly speculative
Drag your feet. Invest in uncertainty. Dodge questions of your own culpability. Blame the victim.
Whether in tobacco advertising or climate denial, these tactics of corporate misdirection have become commonplace. In the past few months, Saint-Gobain has introduced its own version of this mal-science to the Bennington area in a series of investigative reports on PFOA contamination.
Each iteration of this "Conceptual Site Model Site Investigation Report"— the final of which weighs in at a hefty 7,377 pages—is troubling not only for its technical evasion of responsibility but also for how it shifts the burden of guilt from ChemFab to the wider Bennington community.
The State of Vermont has already issued a strong rebuttal and is challenging a number of points raised. But, as these reports demonstrate the underlying commitments of Saint-Gobain and preview legal arguments that may be on the horizon, we thought it was worth bringing them to the light of day.
The full report, as we understand it, advances three major claims: First, that our region has high levels of "background" (that is, non-attributable) PFOA in its soil and water; second, that local residents, farmers, and small businesses were a significant contributor to the PFAS contamination in our region; and, third, that the distinctive chemical signature of PFAS emissions from ChemFab may no longer be identifiable in our region's water and soil. These add up to a single accusation: local residents and the world at large are the real perpetrators of our toxic troubles, not the factory that accepted delivery of PFOA by the truckload for decades.
[Please note: PFAS refers to the wider family of perfluorinated compounds. PFOA is a prominent member of this family of chemicals. The family as a whole is coming under new scrutiny for sharing the well-known concerns of PFOA.]
The full report concludes that no further research is needed with regards to ChemFab's contribution to PFOA contamination in our region (a claim Vermont DEC contests). But noting the presence of "other likely sources" of PFAS, including PFOA, in Bennington, the report repeatedly suggests these other potential polluters "may warrant additional investigation by the appropriate regulatory agencies." So who are these other sources of PFAS contamination?
The answer lies in Appendix H. On behalf of Saint-Gobain, the authors of Appendix H conducted a "desktop evaluation to identify potential sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)" in the wider Bennington area. Although ChemFab appears all too briefly in the introduction of this Appendix — which notes ChemFab "may have emitted PFOA" (and only PFOA) in small quantities from its smokestacks — the resulting investigation places its back to the ChemFab facility and works to sow suspicion nearly everywhere else.
The resulting line-up of suspects names over 75 homes, farms, and businesses in the Bennington area. A bit taken aback by the audacity of the document, we went to talk to the individuals and businesses named in the report. Immediately, we turned up something troubling: none of the people named in the report were even aware that Saint-Gobain had listed them as a potential source of PFAS. The authors of the Appendix never bothered to contact them before casting aspersions.
"We never heard of it. Sounds like they're just trying to create doubt," said one Bennington business owner with whom we spoke. Most residents seemed to see through Saint-Gobain's tactics. As another business owner aptly put it, "They're going spend who knows how many millions of dollars to increase doubt, lessen their own obligation."
When we reached out to try to understand how Golder Associates (the consultant Saint-Gobain hired to author Appendix H) could raise suspicions about local businesses and residents without even contacting them, a representative told us the firm was not open to discussing their methods and analysis, with residents or anyone else.
Calling the accusations "unfounded" and "mostly conjecture" at the community meeting on Monday, John Schmeltzer of Vermont DEC described Appendix H in this way: "They are throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks." Indeed, many of the claims dissolve upon closer inspection.
One carpet and tile company listed as a "potential source of PFAS" simply because "PFAS are known to have been used in carpet cleaning solutions, and stain protectants and water resistant solutions applied to carpet and other flooring materials." However, we learned by visiting the store that the business doesn't perform any of these applications or dispose of its materials on-site.
This section also raises suspicions about the wastewater treatment plant in North Bennington. The public water has tested free of PFAS, so how could PFAS have gotten into the municipal wastewater? The likeliest explanation is ChemFab itself, which drained into the municipal wastewater system. Yet nowhere does the report reflect on this obvious linkage, instead pointing fingers at the effects of the problem ChemFab caused. This is akin to turning on the hose and then blaming the resulting spray on the nozzle.
Private homes were also indicted by the report. One residence was listed because it "appears to have a greenhouse-like structure in the southeastern corner of the property" and "herbicides, pesticides, and/or biosolids may have been used at this property." When we asked the owners about the greenhouse, we discovered it's an organic garden and they never use herbicides or pesticides.
Another homeowner was listed in the report due to the "presence of stockpiles of debris stored, handled, and/or disposed of in the yard surrounding the residence." When we checked this one out, we discovered this "debris" was actually scrap metal, which the owner used to fix up old trucks. Scrap metal is not a likely source of PFAS.
PFAS have become ubiquitous in consumer items, and all of these sites—indeed, most homes in the United States—likely contain trace amounts of them. Nonetheless, Saint-Gobain's report leaves a crucial question of proportionality unaddressed. Is an 8-ounce consumer product that may contain a trace of perfluorinated compounds the same kind of "potential source" as the 55 gallon barrels of pure PFOA delivered to ChemFab by the truckload?
The report implies not only that they are comparable, but that the consumer product may be the more guilty party. The resulting charge is as clear as it is egregious: Saint-Gobain claims that local residents, farms, and businesses are not victims of PFOA contamination, they are actually the real culprits.
These claims are at odds with the facts. Vermont DEC has good reason to suspect ChemFab emitted as much as 26,000 pounds of PFOA out of the stacks, while also dumping industrial amounts of PFAS into the landfill, Paran Creek, and the municipal wastewater system.
In accusing our community of being complicit in PFOA contamination, Saint-Gobain veers from a scientifically sound investigation and into strategic efforts to muddy the waters and trip up the long work of making our community whole again. We wondered how much Saint-Gobain paid for this thinly researched, poorly reasoned, and entirely inappropriate Appendix H. Whatever the amount, the money should have been spent advancing solutions, not delaying them.
This report may lay the groundwork for some minor tactical advantage in the eventual courtroom. But in the here and now, it slows down the water-line extension project on the east side of Bennington and casts an unconscionable accusation at the residents impacted by PFOA contamination. It is just plain wrong.
Curious if your home or business is listed in Saint-Gobain's report? You can check out the whole report on the Vermont DEC website: http://dec.vermont.gov/commissioners-office/pfoa (scroll down to "Conceptual Site Model Site Investigation Report: Bennington VT March 2018")
David Bond is the associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. Jorja Rose is a senior at Bennington completing a thesis on PFOA.
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