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Bennington Residents Hear Update On PFOA Contamination

Lucas Willard

The communities of Bennington and North Bennington were changed when PFOA was detected in private wells in February.

Vermont tested for the chemical used in making Teflon and insulating materials after PFOA was found in Hoosick Falls, just over the New York state border. Both Hoosick Falls and North Bennington are home to facilities owned by company Saint-Gobain.

Over the past several months, the Vermont Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation have been in town testing groundwater and blood, as well as installing filtration systems on private wells.

At a crowded meeting Wednesday night on the Bennington College campus, state Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said blood testing results will be returned soon. Once information is gathered on PFOA blood concentrations, the state will begin a closer analysis.

“We’ll look uniquely at children. We’ll look uniquely at people who formerly worked for Saint-Gobain. We’ll look at people with certain conditions. So we will break it down, analyze it, and give you a more comprehensive report so we can learn and so you can learn more about how this is affecting your community,” said Dolan.

In Hoosick Falls, many residents have PFOA levels in their blood more than 10 times the national average.

Although the science is out relating to how much PFOA in the blood can cause damage to the body, high concentrations have been linked to ill-health effects including high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and cancer.

Richard Spiese, who has been on the ground leading DEC’s response in Bennington and North Bennington, said the filtration systems installed on private wells are working. But he said the state has taken steps for those who remain skeptical of their effectiveness.

“I’ve talked with a number of you who have said ‘I don’t care if it takes all the PFOA out.’ And it may well be doing that. I don’t know for sure. But they’ve said ‘I’m not going to drink my water.’ And in that effort we’ve continued to provide bottled drinking water.”

One individual, who did not identify himself before walking out of the room in apparent frustration, hammered DEC for not having an explicit “yes” or “no” regarding drinking water safety on returned PFOA test results for private wells. 

“I think you’re avoiding satisfying the people of the community. I really do.”

Spiese defended the language on the test results. 

“I just don’t have the information to be able to tell you. I can tell you you’re below the standard for PFOA. You’re below the standard for arsenic. And for those contaminants of concern, your water is OK to drink. But I don’t know what else is in your water and no one knows. So I can’t say that.”

Residents also heard from engineers from the Town of Bennington and Village of North Bennington about municipal water line expansions.

The municipal systems are free of PFOA contamination and leaders view connecting affected residents to the public water supply as a permanent fix.

Bennington Town Manager Stu Hurd said the town has begun taking steps to ensure clean water.

“The select board, last night at their meeting, made the commitment that they’re going to partner with the state. They’re going to continue to partner with the state, and potentnially the federal government, to make sure that the parties that are responsible are held accountable. And we believe, we believe strongly, that the solution is municipal water,” said Hurd.

But the municipal line expansions do not come without challenges. For one thing, high concentrations of PFOA have been found beyond the initial testing area around the Saint-Gobain plant. The chemicals’ movement through the groundwater is still not fully understood, but is being studied by a group of students and faculty at Bennington College.

Officials repeated several times that the contamination is a “moving target.”

There’s also the matter of cost. For Bennington, municipal line extensions could cost $25.9 million. For North Bennington, $5 to $6 million.

DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said the state is working to ensure residents do not end up paying for a problem they did not create.

“The village of North Bennington, the Town of Bennington, working with the community will let the state know ‘Here’s where we want the lines to go.’ We’ll ultimately come to a price tag on that and then we will work to advocate with Saint-Gobain to cover those costs.”

Saint-Gobain is paying for water filtration systems on private wells.

It’s not clear if any representatives from the company attended the meeting. Saint-Gobain has said in a statement it “will cooperate with all local, state and federal officials as they investigate and manage this issue.”

Below, listen to an interview with DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren on the state's response to the PFOA crisis in Bennington and North Bennington:


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