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Two-Day PFOA Conference Touts Whistleblowers

Last year, Bennington College and Hoosick Falls High School students began researching their regions' similar PFOA contaminations in an effort to calm community concern. Their findings were discussed at a conference at Bennington College over the weekend that featured residents and lawmakers from both regions. 

During day one of the conference Friday, students showcased the work they’ve done to answer questions rattling their region, like “Has PFOA contaminated swimming pools, is filtered tap water safe to drink and is it in our maple syrup?”

On Saturday, Hoosick Falls Central School District Superintendent Kenneth Facin and Bennington College's Professor David Bond presented the material to the public. And they, basically, the answer to those questions is yes – to all of it.

Bond says the conference was an effort to bridge the state line and bring the two communities together to exchange information.

“And there was a scarcity of reliable places to go to get up to speed on what's happening,” Bond says. “So we thought the college could play a role by opening our classroom space and teaching – what we do best – to not only our students but to the community that wanted to learn more about what was going on.”

The overall feel of the conference wasn’t the pride of accomplishment, but rather a quest for answers. Students, scientists, local and state officials, and residents exchanged their stories in hopes of coming up with a better plan going forward.

Vermont Democratic Senator Brian Campion says more needs to be done to restore Southern Vermont communities affected by contamination.

“Parents learned that they’ve been rearing their children with contaminated water,” Campion says. “People had cooked with it, cared for their pets. Families filled water bottles for hiking trips with what they believed was clean water. People drilled wells on land where they built their homes. Showering, swimming, drinking, cooking; in short: innumerable interactions between people and PFOA.”

PFOA has also been found in Halifax, Putney, Pownal, Dover, Sunderland, Brattleboro, Shaftsbury, Essex, Colchester, Shelburne, Pittsford and South Burlington.

Blood testing in this region, and in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, New York, has shown PFOA levels many times greater than the national average. Soil samples tested in some areas are 100 times greater, which means left untreated, it will remain in drinking water for decades.

“PFOA persists indefinitely in the environment. It’s a toxic and a carcinogen and holds a high probability to being linked to cancers and many other diseases,” Campion says.

Hoosick Falls resident Michael Hickey paid for the initial tests that revealed the PFOA contamination in that Rensselaer County village. His father, who lived next door to a chemical laboratory, died of kidney cancer, and Hickey suspected something environmental – like PFOA – could have contributed.

“And nobody was really willing to test at that point,” Hickey says.

Hickey found a private lab.

“So I decided to do a test on my own,” Hickey says. “And when it came back, it was positive.”

Hickey’s story isn’t unique. Whistleblowing from Emily Marpe and Jim Goodine from Petersburgh, New York, and North Bennington, Vermont, respectively, helped escalate community awareness.

They alongside their elected leaders discussed what still keeps them up at night. For instance, other than the quality of the drinking water, residents are concerned about the effect of contamination on the value of their homes.

Goodine, a developer, says the contamination is crumbling good real estate because…

“Nobody is going to drill a well down there into that aquifer ever again. No one in their right mind.”

Marpe had sold her house in Petersburgh and moved to Hoosick Falls, where the water supply is municipal.

“The comfort of our home – out the window,” Marpe says.

She says it really lowered the selling price on her home, but she got rid of a headache.

“It was worse for me in Petersburgh,” Marpe says. “Number one we were on a POET, so every three months I have to deal with the polluter who could affect my children in the future, like they send me my results. They read them first and I have to rely on them.”

A POET is a Point Of Entry Treatment water filtration system.

North Bennington Village Chair Matt Patterson says governments need to stay on top of testing or getting polluters to test for chemicals.

“You are going to see these fluctuations in these wells and this is why it absolutely is not acceptable to go and test somebody’s well and determine ‘Oh, that you have clean water’ because tomorrow you might not, or next month,” Patterson says. “And they need to keep testing these wells.”

Former Regional EPA Administrator Judith Enck suggested a new policy to replace the Toxics Replace Inventory, or TRI, which requires companies to report how much pollution they release. 

“How about a new state law that the Vermont State Legislature or the New York State Legislature can adopt because I am guessing we are not going to get it through Congress in this climate: where if you’re a company, you have to report the amount and the type of chemical that you use on your plant site – either manufacturing or for maintenance – and then you the company, the party, need test the ground water on the footprint of your facility and then post the test results on a publicly available website,” Enck says.

Bennington Professor Bond and Hoosick Falls Superintendent Facin say they hope the meeting of the communities will bring future collaboration. 

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