PFOA in wells, soil costly on many levels
In this five-part series, Jim Therrien, who writes for New England Newspapers in Vermont and VTDigger, and VTDigger reporter Mike Polhamus examine the history of the Bennington plants and the impact of toxic chemical emissions on local residents.
BENNINGTON — Property owners near the closed ChemFab Corp. plant in North Bennington thought their worries — and the effects of chemical stench, fine black soot and "blue haze" in their neighborhoods — were over when the plant shut down in 2002.
Fourteen years later, they learned just how wrong they were.
Early in 2016, widespread PFOA contamination, believed to have emanated from the factory, was detected in private wells and in the soil of yards and gardens. It was the same industrial chemical — perfluorooctanoic acid — that had been detected in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh in nearby New York around other manufacturing sites.
State-ordered testing for soil and groundwater contamination was originally conducted in a 1.5 mile radius around the plant on Route 67A. The zone has grown and now looks like a giant amoeba spread across a map of the local area.
When the state announced test results in the spring of 2016, hundreds of residents — including many who had moved away — realized that they had for years unwittingly consumed water laced with PFOA, a toxin linked to cancers and other diseases.
In state testing of 570 local wells, 276 were reported in late April to have PFOA levels above 20 parts per trillion. In retesting of some 260 wells that were initially below 20 parts per trillion, the levels in 12 were found to have risen above 20.
In addition, Vermont Department of Health officials have reported that blood tests of about 500 residents in the affected areas of town found an average of 10 micrograms per liter of PFOA in blood, compared to the estimated national average of 2.1 micrograms per liter. Individual readings as high as 1,125 micrograms per liter were detected in blood drawn from Bennington County residents.
RESIDENTS FEEL STUCK
Residents who live in the contamination zone say they will not be able to sell their homes because of the persistence of PFOA in soil and groundwater.
Andy Beckerman, purchased his home on Susan Taylor Lane, within a few hundred yards of the plant, in 1998.
"We went to the company down there many times, to the state of Vermont, and we got nowhere," Beckerman remembers. "And we were so happy when they just closed up shop and left. We said, `OK, problem over.'"
But last year Beckerman's peace of mind and that of his neighbors was shaken by news that well water in the area had been contaminated by PFOA. The substance also was detected in the soil, and ultimately in the blood of residents and former workers at ChemFab, which operated at the North Bennington site from the 1970s through 2002, and for a decade previously as a fledgling company at a former factory in Bennington.
PFOA was used in the preparation of Teflon, which ChemFab used to coat fiberglass fabrics, conveyor belts and other products. The materials were baked dry in a process that produced fumes and emissions from the factory stacks.
Beckerman said results for his well tested "in the 900s," meaning parts per trillion of PFOA, and has tested higher in successive tests. The level now stands at more than 1,500 parts per trillion.The state of Vermont has set a safe drinking water standard of 20 parts per trillion of PFOA. The Environmental Protection Agency set an advisory level of 70 parts per trillion in May 2016, after PFOA contamination near industrial sites, landfills and dumping areas around the nation emerged as a significant pollution and health issue.
Extensive medical studies following discovery during the early 2000s of major PFOA contamination of water supplies in West Virginia and nearby states found that exposure to the chemical is linked to testicular and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and thyroid disease. However, levels of exposure have not been tied to diagnoses of particular diseases.
PFOA levels in the blood build up over time and decline very slowly, over a period of years, after the source of exposure is eliminated.
Test results made available since the spring of 2016 distressed many Bennington residents who worried about the long-term health effects of the toxin.
Beyond significant health issues, many residents in North Bennington village and Bennington were also devastated by the potential impact of the contamination on the resale of their houses.
A number of residents, who have invested their life savings in their homes, feel stuck.
Resale now seems like an impossibility for many. They have no choice but to stay and use bottled drinking water until a municipal water pipeline is extended to their property, no sooner than next year.
In addition, there is no way to predict how PFOA will spread in the future. While PFOA levels in Beckerman's well, for example, have continued to rise, a neighbor's well less than 100 yards away "has consistently tested below 20 parts per trillion."
In fact, the PFOA contamination zone has proven difficult to map. Ongoing geologic and hydrological studies of the groundwater show the contaminant is distributed unpredictably in the environment. Some homeowners believe the recent wet weather has affected the water table and produced higher levels of concentration, but that is a guess, they say.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the international firm that purchased the North Bennington ChemFab plant in 2000 and moved the local operation to New Hampshire two years later, has agreed to supply bottled water to affected residents and carbon filtering units for tap water.
The state also is negotiating with the firm over the estimated $30 million to $40 million cost of extending Bennington and North Bennington water system lines to the properties as a long-term drinking water solution. A partial settlement was announced in late July, with the company agreeing to pay $20 million for water line extensions to about 200 properties in the western sector of the contamination zone.
If no settlement is reached by next year for the eastern sector of the contamination zone, Vermont officials have said they will consider building the water lines and taking the company to court for reimbursement.
A new state law holds any entity releasing PFOA into the environment financially responsible for public water line extensions to affected properties, although imposing the law also might result in a court battle.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed on behalf of affected residents seeks damages for financial losses and other negative effects. The suit in U.S. District Court, brought on behalf of the entire class of affected property owners, charges Saint-Gobain with negligence, nuisance, trespass, battery, and strict liability claims "due to the diminution in property value, loss of use and enjoyment of property, annoyance, upset, aggravation and inconvenience and other damages which they have suffered as a result of the PFOA contamination caused by defendant."
Individual lawsuits over specific medical conditions allegedly caused by PFOA exposure also are likely to be filed later in state court, attorneys have said.
Beckerman said his financial losses, and that of his neighbors, won't be addressed even if the water lines are installed along his street, and he intends to join the federal suit if it is approved as a class-action suit.
"You know, we bought the house and the well, and the well is now worthless," he said. "It was paid for as part of the price. So, if we get on the municipal system now, well then you start paying money for municipal water. And you lose the investment in the well."
His investment in his home, Beckerman said, also has been affected, although the long-term effects are difficult to predict.
He and his wife, Carol, hadn't thought of selling their home, he said, but adds, "It just makes it hard as a homeowner, when you have this investment, as well as a place to live, and all of a sudden that option is pretty much off the table."
Beckerman said if they had to move for some reason, selling their home would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
"Without that hanging over you, you just say, `well, if we had to, we could sell,'" he said. "I try not to think about it much, but it is in the background. And we all hope that none of us develops medical problems."
Soil contamination is another issue for residents. Is it safe for children to play in the yard? Is it safe to eat vegetables grown in the soil?
Although some contamination is thought to stem from spills from the industrial operation, most is believed by state officials to have come from stack emissions from the plant, spreading over a wide area and then working down into the soil and groundwater.
Sitting on his hillside deck, a quiet spot from which the ChemFab plant is hidden from view, Beckerman recalled what it was like when the factory was still in operation.
"It was so horrible to be out here, and the prevailing wind is from the west; it was just unbearable to be here," Beckerman said. "It made people feel sick.
"It was nauseating; it was awful," he said. "We had black cobwebs in our house. When they stopped producing whatever it was they were producing, the black cobwebs went away It was clearly this black soot, very fine, right in the house, no matter what."
When he asked state officials about whether the soil was safe for growing vegetables, they couldn't give him an answer.
"When we talk to [state officials] they say, it's only so many parts per billion," Beckerman said. "And I say, but does it go into the vegetables? And they say, `well, we're not sure, we don't think so. We think it's OK, but it's vague' It is in the soil, so how much gets into plants? There are studies being done now."
He said produce grown on his property, which the family had been eating, will be tested for PFOA contamination levels by a friend who is a professor at Williams College.
"If it is parts per billion [in soil], that is high, as they are talking parts per trillion in the water," he said, but the question is how much PFOA is in the plants grown in the soil.
After some initial soil testing last year, the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets issued an advisory that soils would "not be expected to have detectable levels of PFOA in the edible parts of the plants."
When the news about the contamination broke last year, a number of businesses — several restaurants, a maple syrup producer, a veterinarian and a distiller — had to scramble to make sure their water supply was unaffected.
Jim Goodine, a contractor and real estate developer, said he and a partner have six lots to sell in a 22-lot home subdivision near the former plant. Sale of the properties now looks unlikely because of the contamination. He has argued for an extension of town water lines to the area.
In testimony at a hearing in Bennington, Godine told lawmakers he "could not drill a well out there."
At present, the jury is out on the long-term effects on property values and home sales in the contamination zone. Bennington Assessor John Antognioni said the number of sales since the PFOA problem emerged last year has been too low to gauge an effect on valuation.
"At this point, there hasn't been any marked effect," he said.
He said some property owners have referred to the contamination in appeals for a reduced assessment, but the small number of home sales hasn't provided much market value data to support reductions. Because the PFOA levels in private wells can be lowered with on-site carbon filtering systems — being funded along with bottled water by Saint-Gobain — the situation also differs from that of Hoosick Falls, where the municipal water system was contaminated, he said.
Many of the Vermont properties also could be in line for town water in the future, Antognioni said, "so a lot depends on what happens with the state [negotiations] and where the water lines go."
Realtor Kathy Hoisington lives in the Apple Hill area where contamination was detected and has a carbon and ultraviolet light filtering system on her well, which initially tested at 120 parts per trillion of PFOA.
Hoisington said she is "not an alarmist" about the situation and hasn't noticed a negative effect on the real estate market, but news of the contamination "has made people aware. They want to see the [well testing] paperwork."
Buyers seem willing to consider homes if a filtering system is in place, she said, especially if town water lines will be extended to the residence in future.
Personally, Hoisington said she was "thrilled with my ultraviolet filter. The water is now the cleanest I've ever had."
As for her PFOA blood level, it was "not exaggerated," Hoisington said, adding, "But I have used Teflon pans all my life too, and I wonder about the effects of that or what else I have in my blood."
Like Hoisington, who lives relatively far from the factory site, many residents found they could not escape the contamination. Bill Knight, president of the Apple Hill Homeowners Association, which has 34 members, said 32 private wells had PFOA levels above the state standard for drinking water.
Much of the area was outside the 1.5 mile radius suspected in early 2016 of having been contaminated, until well testing proved otherwise.
Knight said he is 70 and not overly worried about future health effects. But he said his wife always drank bottled water and had a very low PFOA blood level, while his registered 58 micrograms per liter, well above the national average.
The bottled water and carbon filtering units paid for by Saint-Gobain have stabilized the situation, Knight said, but he will not recoup the cost of a 634-foot well and will have to pay for town water if the area is linked to the village water system.
Knight says he wants Saint-Gobain to pay for the cost of drilling the well and his future municipal water bills.
Recently, the state and Saint-Gobain reached agreement to have the company fund the extension of the municipal water system lines to affected properties roughly west of a rail line and Route 7A, while negotiations continue for those with elevated PFOA levels in wells east of the highway and rail line, such as the Apple Hill community.
The company is still contending that a source for PFOA could be a former town landfill in that area, but state officials believe airborne contamination from the plant is the overriding cause. Further testing and engineering work is in progress.
John Schmeltzer, of the state Waste Management and Prevention Division, reported recently that the state continues to try to map the zone of contamination in groundwater. He said the work is focused on gathering geologic and groundwater flow and composition information, while mapping area wells.
Tom Gentle lives on Murphy Road, which is west of the former factory. He said the PFOA level found in his 130-foot well "was pretty high, 440 parts per trillion."
While he had an elevated PFOA level in a blood test, Gentle said he hasn't noticed any adverse health effects to date. He has, however, noticed a financial impact on his neighborhood.
"There isn't any doubt of the effects on that," he said. "I'm struck by the paucity of for sale signs in our neck of the woods. There are almost none."
Gentle added, "You don't have to be Einstein's second wife to understand that the values have greatly diminished."
He said his hope is that the area is connected to the North Bennington water system. If that happens, he said, there will be a residual effect that should decline as it can be shown through testing that the drinking water is free of contamination.
"If I were younger I would worry more," said Gentle, who is in his 70s. He said his heart goes out to people who have raised or are raising children in the contamination zone.
A participant in the federal lawsuit, Gentle said, "I don't have warm and fuzzy feelings about a company like Saint-Gobain. There should be an investigation of the many plants they have worldwide. It seems they are located deliberately in communities like Hoosick Falls (N.Y.) or North Bennington, where it was easier to sell in terms of jobs."
In the area around the former ChemFab plant, Gentle said, "it will take a long, long time to phase this out, and still it will be in people's blood."
Gentle is also concerned about a related chemical, PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonate), which was used in fire suppressing foams and is being detected around numerous military airbases. "When I look at maps of that, I get depressed over the world we are leaving behind."
A video on the ChemFab series can be found at https://youtu.be/BbyXKpAyLX4
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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