Oldcastle to show PFOA documentary, include panel discussion

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BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company, which will premiere a play next month about a fictional town gripped by a PFOA (perfluorootaonic acid) contamination crisis, will show a documentary on Tuesday that depicts the real life trauma suffered by several American communities.

The film by Hoosick Falls, N.Y., native Victor Pytko, "Bad Water: Small Town. Deaf Ears: Everything You Need to Know About PFAS But Don't Know How to Ask," will be shown Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. at Oldcastle Theatre on Main Street.

The event will feature a panel discussion including David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College and a leader of the college's Understanding PFOA project.

Also included will be Loreen Hackett, of Hoosick Falls, Pytko's niece, who became a widely known advocate for clean drinking water in the wake of the discovery of PFOA contamination in the village's water supplies in 2015.

Hackett was credited with suggesting the film to Pytko when he visited his home town, and she appears in the documentary.

The film focuses on community groups and local officials in four states as they grapple with the long-term health and water pollution effects of the industrial chemical and its relatives in the PFAS (per-and polyfluoralkyl substances) group.

Only recognized in recent years as a widespread contaminant that works into ground and surface water supplies, PFAS are easily soluble and can persist for up to hundreds of years. PFOA, for instance, was used for decades in Teflon to create such consumer products as nonstick pans.

Other PFAS chemicals are associated with firefighting foam and water-resistant fabric sprays.

The pollution in Hoosick Falls, believed to have emanated from several industrial sites, was documented through water testing less than five years ago. Those results led to testing of wells in North Bennington, which showed that hundreds of wells around former ChemFab Corp. plants had been contaminated and those residents had been consuming the toxic chemical in their water.

Elevated PFOA levels in the blood has been linked through studies to such illnesses and conditions as kidney, testicular and thyroid cancer, high cholesterol and ulcerative colitis.

In a December 2018 interview, Pytko, a graduate of Hoosick Falls Central School, said he became interested in a documentary after speaking with Hackett about the devastating effects on the health of residents of the village, and on its water systems, property values and economy.

He and co-producer Ed Gardiner interviewed residents in Hoosick Falls and in Merrimack, N.H., which was dealing with similar issues, beginning in 2017.

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Segments also were filmed in Oscoda, Rockford and Belmont, Mich., and in Grand Rapids when the filmmakers interviewed Aaron Phelps with Varnum Law. They also filmed during a clean water conference at Bennington College.

Pytko, who now lives in Detroit, said he worked at a Hoosick Falls factory in 1964 that used PFAS materials to make plumbers tape. He recalled that one of his co-workers, who worked with blocks of Teflon powder used to coat the tape, later died of cancer.

"Like so many others, I was totally unaware of PFAS, neither the family of compounds nor their long-term negative effect on human health," Mr. Pytko said in the interview. "It was my niece who urged me to do something in the way of a documentary. Only then did I learn of the tragedy foisted upon my hometown and on other villages and communities across the nation, and indeed around the world."

"Bad Water" took about two years to complete, he said, adding that the film "is also our humble tribute to the ordinary but self-sacrificing individuals who have been serving as clarions, advocating clean water solutions and fighting to save lives and to mitigate health and financial losses due to PFAS."

Play premiere

Oldcastle Theatre Company also is continuing a tradition of presenting works dealing with local and regional themes. On Oct. 4, it will premiere a new play, "Water, Water, Everywhere ...," loosely based on a water crisis in a small fictional Vermont town, Walloomsac.

In the play the local newspaper, which is about to go out of business, is struggling to investigate the unexplained pollution of local wells.

"Showing Victor's film is an ideal vehicle to help inform the public," according to the author of the play, Oldcastle's Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson.

"We wanted to show the movie as soon as we heard about it in an article in the Banner," he said. "These kinds of water crises are happening all over the country, not just in our region. "In New Jersey, one of the actors brought me an article from that day's Washington Post about a similar PFAS problem in Michigan."

Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey held a reading of Peterson's play earlier this year.

"Plays about water contamination go back to, at least 1882, when Henrik Ibsen wrote `An Enemy of the People,'" Peterson said. "Ibsen said he didn't know if his play was a comedy or a drama, that it contained traits of comedy but was based on a serious idea. I feel the same way about "Water, Water, Everywhere ," and have added an element of mystery."

A donation is requested from those attending the showing of the film. For additional information, call Oldcastle at 802-447-0564 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org.

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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