Plan OK'ed for sites not getting water lines

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BENNINGTON — Not every Bennington property within the PFOA contamination zone will be tied into a municipal water line, but there is a state-approved plan to ensure those sites have clean drinking water.

The Agency of Natural Resources has approved a corrective action plan covering about 50 properties within the state-identified zone around two former ChemFab Corp. factories.

The 103-page action plan was prepared by engineering firms commissioned by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which acquired ChemFab in 2000 and is considered the responsible party for the cost of providing clean drinking water to areas with wells contaminated by PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

The company also is providing up to $20 million for new water lines to more than 200 properties in the contamination zone west of Route 7A, while the firm continues to negotiate with the state over a settlement covering a similar number of properties east of the highway.

According to Richard Spiese, a hazardous waste site manager with the Department of Environmental Conservation, the action plan approved by the state on June 25 addresses alternative solutions to providing clean water where it was considered not technically feasible or cost-effective to extend municipal water lines.

"There are 40 to 50 in total, and the majority of the wells are non-detect [for PFOA]," Spiese said.

The plan covers the sector of the contamination zone where water lines funded by Saint-Gobain are currently being installed, with an estimated project completion date of this fall.

The alternatives proposed in the action plan include long-term monitoring of wells in the zone that have never tested above 20 parts per trillion of PFOA, the state's standard for safe drinking water.

In about a dozen cases, he said, wells with PFOA levels at or above the standard will be considered for replacement with a newly drilled well on the property.

That could include a deeper well or one extending further into bedrock to avoid PFOA at a shallower level, or adding new casing or protective barriers to the well to ensure water is drawn from deeper sources.

One option, Spiese said, involves sealing an existing well with grout and then drilling a new hole through the center to provide a solid casing throughout.

"It is more of a vertical separation they are trying to get, not a horizontal one," he said.

Some of the wells being considered for replacement or redrilling were found to be not deep enough into bedrock or had casing that was leaking and therefore exposed to PFOA present at shallow levels.

Spiese said the project engineers and DEC representatives will meet with each property owner before final decisions are made in those cases.

The wells that have tested below the Vermont PFOA standard will be monitored long-term under the action plan, twice annually at this point, although that could be revised over time based on the results.

Sampling also will continue long-term in several test wells around the entire western contamination zone for changes in PFOA levels and for migration of the chemical in groundwater over time.

Long-term options

Asked if the action level for wells would be lowered if Vermont lowered its 20 parts per trillion standard, Spiese said, "the state would have to decide what to do."

He said the options could include seeking an agreement with Saint-Gobain to include the new standard in the action plan or picking up the additional remediation costs.

In light of a national report on the extent of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination around the U.S., several states are considering lowering their standards for safe drinking water, as the federal report tentatively recommends. PFAS encompasses hundreds of industrial compounds related to PFOA and PFOS (an ingredient found in firefighting foam).

Vermont currently has one of the lowest standards in the country. The federal Environmental Protection Agency advisory recommendation is 70 parts per trillion for drinking water. New Jersey in 2017 set a standard of 14 parts per trillion.

The chemical has been associated through medical studies with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Spiese said the action plan also commits the company to filing an application to have the groundwater in the area around the former factories reclassified from Class 3 — safe for drinking — to Class 4, not potable.

That process will require an application to the ANR and engineering or related work to verify the conditions.

As for when the PFOA might dissipate in the groundwater, Spiese said, "There is still a lot we don't understand about PFOA. It could be a couple of hundred years."

The PFOA here is believed by state officials to have emanated from the ChemFab factory exhaust stacks while the firm, which formed in Bennington in 1968 before expanding to other states and countries, coated fiberglass or other fabrics with Teflon at high temperature. PFOA was used in the manufacture of Teflon.

Saint-Gobain acquired ChemFab in 2000 and moved the Bennington operation to New Hampshire in 2002.

The company has not yet agreed with the DEC's conclusion the ChemFab stack emissions were overwhelmingly the cause of the PFOA in wells east of Route 7A, and that new water lines are the best long-term response to provide clean water. Talks involving the state and Saint-Gobain reaching a critical point, state officials have said, and an announcement on progress or a lack of it is expected within a few weeks.

If no agreement is reached, the state has said it will seek to recoup in court the cost of dealing with the contamination.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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