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Gov. Peter Shumlin Tours North Bennington To Discuss Contaminated Water

Lucas Willard
Ron Pembroke discusses PFOA contamination with Governor Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Southern Vermont native, spent Tuesday morning about town, talking to local residents who have been restricted from drinking their wellwater.

His first stop on the tour was North Bennington Variety, where locals were gathered, picking up their morning coffee.

In February the chemical PFOA was found in public and private wells. It's the same contaminant at the center of the water contamination issues in the nearby New York village of Hoosick Falls and Town of Petersburgh.

Behind the convenience store, Governor Shumlin took at look at the pallets of bottled water being provided to local residents.

He joked about the source of the bottled water.

"Pennsylvania! Are you kiddin' me? We got to fix that!" laughed Shumlin. He would have preferred Vermont water.

Like in New York, state officials in Vermont still are in the dark about the extent of the contamination and how long it's been there.

Dick Sears represents Bennington County in the state Senate.

"We don't know how far across the river it’s spread. So if it's in the Walloomsac River or went underground to get to the Wallomsac River, these are things to find out."

Lawmakers also don't know what other communities may also have their water sources compromised. State Senator Brian Campion...

"One of the things we're looking at right now, I asked the agency for a complete list of toxic sites throughout the state. So not just PFOA, we've got to look at this as an opportunity to deal with all water cleanup," said Campion.

The state is testing wells within a one-and-a-half mile radius of the former Chemfab plant. The building was purchased by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in 2000 and closed in 2002. Saint-Gobain says it is fully cooperating with agencies in Vermont and New York as investigations are launched at its facilities in North Bennington and Hoosick Falls. The Hoosick Falls plant was declared a state Superfund site.

Meantime, local residents are hungry for answers. Outside of Pembroke Landscaping, where well water with PFOA was found, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren told owner Ron Pembroke that testing will continue.

"So we're gonna do some water sampling this week of the river, and we're going to do sediment sampling this week as well. So we should be able to have those back in a couple weeks. So we'll get the initial results of the home water well testing and we'll get the sediment and surface water testing, I think, the following week," said Schuren.

"The sooner we get...what we know about the river, the better...then we can answer customers' concerns," said Pembroke.

The quick fix for those with contaminated wells, at least for now, appears to be connecting with the municipal water supply. Shumlin said if there's a "bright side" to the situation,it’s that the public water supply has shown non-detectable levels of PFOA. The same cannot be said for Petersburgh and Hoosick Falls.

At a Q and A at Bennington College, Shumlin said while the state is still in the "crisis management" phase, testing and assessment will continue. Inquiries into effects on health and property values is forthcoming.

Shumlin called the federal regulations on PFOA "broken" and praised the actions of the people of Bennington and state agencies for their work so far.

The Democrat, who will return to Southern Vermont as a private citizen after leaving office in January, asked the audience to remain vigilant.

"There's nothing we can do to undo what has happened. What I do promise is that we will work with you at every level of state governemnt to make the best of a horrid situation. And I ask you, at any point, if you feel that we're not being responsive, that we're doing what we should be doing, that there's more and better ways to approach this, that you join us in the spirit of civility and common sense that we're lucky pervades this state...and call me. Call us and tell us how we can do better," said Shumlin.

Also on Tuesday, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health announceda commitment from Taconic to install a filtration system for Petersburgh’s water supply. In Hoosick Falls, a temporary filtration system has been installed to begin flushing PFOA from water lines. Private well testing is scheduled to continue.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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