BENNINGTON — For a playwright drawn to Vermont themes, Eric Peterson saw the discovery of PFOA contamination of wells in Bennington as both a vicious shock to his community and a major inspiration.
The producing artistic director of Oldcastle Theatre Company, Peterson has written about Vermont's first-in-the-nation civil unions law; Benningtonians who served in World War II, Robert Frost, and Ethan Allen.
Today, he is several drafts deep into "Water, Water Everywhere ," about a town that resembles Bennington, a local factory and provider of "good-paying jobs," and the officials and business leaders who for years have played down the looming environmental and health crisis.
"I think this is such an important story to where we live — Bennington, Hoosick Falls [N.Y.], North Bennington — and it struck me that water is so bloody essential," Peterson said. "If government can't provide clean water, then we're in a whole lot of trouble. And this has echoes all across the country."
Decisions that are made or not made, allowing polluters to continue operating because they provide jobs, are still being made all over the country, Peterson said, "and it is frightening."
The residents of Bennington and other towns thus victimized come to feel powerless, he said.
"They didn't know this was happening," he said. "By the time it was discovered it was too late, and then their lives are just overtaken by this catastrophe. And they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't anything they did."
What also fascinated him, Peterson said, was that, "I don't think the company wanted to hurt people; I don't think the administration in Montpelier wanted to hurt people. But I think there is always this understandable tension between jobs and the environment."
With that in mind, he said, "One of the things I tried to do is write a play where something terrible happens and there really isn't a single bad guy to point to. The guys involved in this didn't set out to hurt people; in fact the motives of one in particular were very good, but in the play they made some really wrong decisions."
In the real Bennington, Vermont, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) that state officials believe primarily spewed from the exhaust stacks of former ChemFab Corp. factories built up over decades in the soil and groundwater across a swath of the town.
That all came to light in early 2016 through well water testing that confirmed hundreds of private wells had been contaminated — many of them for years, if not decades.
And many current and former residents soon learned that their blood had elevated levels of an industrial compound associated with certain cancers and other diseases and conditions. Compounding their unease was the fact no definitive levels of PFOA in the blood have been directly linked to specific medical consequences, meaning the effects might not show up for years — while levels of the chemical very slowly trend lower.
Peterson is careful to point out that the play is not actually about Bennington and its specific PFOA issues, nor are the characters based on actual residents.
But many older residents might think of the late Liz Dwyer, a reporter, columnist and editor at the Bennington Banner for many years who died in 1977.
In the play, Katherine Dwyer is a longtime journalist in her 60s who comes out of retirement to help rescue the struggling hometown Walloomsac Tribune, which has been put up for sale by its media conglomerate owners after years of news staff reductions and declining circulation.
"She was sort of legendary, so that's why I used that name," Peterson said of Liz Dwyer, adding that he was growing up in town when the real journalist was at the Banner, and he later wrote for the newspaper as well.
"But I don't want anybody to think this is a documentary," he said. "Though it's obviously based in part on what happened here."
Peterson said the fictional town of Walloomsac is actually bigger than Bennington and has a mayor, not a select board.
"In my mind it's partly Bennington, partly Pittsfield [Mass.] and partly Burlington," he said. "Closer to the size of Pittsfield and Burlington than it is Bennington, because it is easier to get into politics if you have a mayor. Part of that is literary license, I guess, to be able to tell a story."
He also uses the name Corcoran, as well as the first name Ethan, both of which resonate in this area, for a wealthy local businessman.
"But I don't want anybody to think that is Tim [the late state representative and later town clerk Tim Corcoran]," Peterson said. "It is because it is such a local name."
He also creates an "industrialist" at the local company that eventually is blamed for the contamination, but that person "is pretty much whole cloth, made up."
In reality, ChemFab, which was formed by a local group in 1968, was acquired by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in 2000, and the local operation was moved to New Hampshire in 2002. During its time here, the company expanded into several states and overseas and became well known for its coated fiberglass fabrics that were used in many sports stadium domes and similar structures worldwide.
The use of liquid Teflon to coat the fiberglass fabrics at high temperature is believed to be the major source of PFOA contamination in the area around two former ChemFab factories in town. PFOA was used for decades in the manufacture of Teflon, and PFOA and related compounds are today believed to be in at least trace amounts in the blood of every human on the planet, as well as in soils and groundwater in many states and other nations.
Nick and Nora
Other central characters in the play are Nick and Nora, two young journalists in their 20s who are about to lose their jobs with the newspaper's imminent closure. Yes, Nick and Nora, which naturally induces an image of the 1930s "The Thin Man" film series and the snappy dialogue inspired by the author Dashiell Hammett and delivered by actors William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Some of the back and forth between the two journalist as they work to expose the full truth of the environmental disaster is reminiscent of the classic stage couple.
Peterson also focuses in periodic short segments on various residents of Walloomsac, Vermont, as they struggle to absorb the truth and deal with the consequences for their families and their town.
According to the stage directions, a number of characters are shown in a spotlight and speak from the perspective of local people. Peterson also employed that technique in "Civil Union," in which he used some of the actual testimony in the Legislature prior to Vermont becoming the first state in the nation to extend rights to same-sex couples in 2000.
That pioneering legislation also triggered a backlash and the "Take Back Vermont" campaign that led to Republicans taking control of the House for the time in years and making strong gains in the Senate.
"Writing that play and writing this play were similar," Peterson said. "I sort of would read the newspaper in the morning, and at night I would work on the play based on what was in the Banner or on VTDigger that day or that week."
He said he had key help from veteran journalist and author Tony Marro, the Oldcastle board president and former journalist in Vermont and later for publications like Newsday, Newsweek and The New York Times.
"He was a great help in how newspapers work," Peterson said.
"What Eric has done here was quite good," Marro said. "It shows the realities of trying to do local journalism in a small town, on an important and complicated issue — and when many people in town are friends of the publisher."
Peterson said Oldcastle will schedule a reading of the play later this fall, and another is planned in January at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, located in another area of the country dealing with widespread water contamination from PFOA and its related compounds.
"They asked if they could do a reading of it, and I am always happy to hear it read with good actors," he said. "I have worked with them before, so I know it will be really helpful to me."
Peterson said it "is very helpful to hear it and it is helpful to hear it and to get some feedback from an audience, if they got confused anywhere, if so how and so forth."
"'Water Water Everywhere' is a play about the importance of local journalism and local newspapers, many of which are meeting tragic cutbacks and/or extinction," said John Pietrowski, the artistic director of Playwrights Theatre, in an email. "Eric's play tells this story in a very human way, and because of that, we want to assist in its development."
"This is why plays get not so much written as developed, and that is why you go from theater to theater to theater now," Peterson said. "It used to be if you had a Broadway show you opened in Philadelphia and then someplace like Boston and then New York. And now you sort of go regional theater to regional theater."
A reading in New Jersey is planned in January, while a Peterson hopes to schedule one in Bennington within the next month.
Where might the play open?
"We would certainly consider it for here," he said. "We [Oldcastle] have always tried to do stories that speak directly to this region, which is why we did 'Civil Union.' We have done a play about Robert Frost ['Frost Warnings']; we did a play about Ethan Allen, and Tony [Marro] and I wrote 'Bennington Goes to War,' which is about local World War II vets."
"I think one of the obligations of professional theater is to write and work and present things that speak directly to the region they are living in," Peterson said. "And this was a story that was sort of like living in Flynt [Michigan]. If you are living in Flynt, you have got to do something about the water issue. I felt the same way here; the fact that so many people in so many ways were affected, and I expect for years and years, healthwise."
Journalism in trouble
The play is also the story of a local newspaper struggling with corporate ownership based in another state that has stripped away the news staff and is on the verge of closing. This is another theme Peterson said is close to his heart.
In this fictional case, a couple of young reporters and a strong-willed veteran journalist from a bygone era manage to blow a tangled cover-up higher than the factory's stacks.
"I think what we have now in the country is really good coverage of national news, less good of international news, and in some cases very little or inadequate coverage of local news," he said.
From Oldcastle's viewpoint, he said, "We used to get as many as 12 or 14 reviews" from local newspapers, but many are now gone or had suffered staff reductions.
Peterson mentioned the Advocate and the North Adams Transcript, both once based in nearby Berkshire County, Mass.
"We are losing a great deal," he said.
Peterson cited cutbacks, especially involving Statehouse coverage, at the Rutland Herald and other Vermont papers.
But he was encouraged when a Pittsfield-based group purchased in 2016 the Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer from Media News Group [later called Digital First Media], which had owned the newspapers since the mid-1990s.
In the play, the Walloomsac Tribune is owned by a Colorado-based media conglomerate, where Media-News was headquartered, which has placed the local paper on the market.
The papers still do not have the news staff they once had, Peterson said, "but I just hope Digger [VTDigger] can succeed, and I think local ownership [of newspapers] is the key."
"I think that is a story that has to be told again and again, from as many angles as possible," Peterson said. "It affects all of us in all kinds of ways that we don't even realize."