Energy & Environment

More than 50 wells test positive for PFOA in North Bennington

Test results released on Monday show dozens more wells near a former industrial site in North Bennington are contaminated with a suspected carcinogen, state officials say.

The state found perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in 52 of 61 residential wells near the former Chemfab factory, officials said Tuesday.

Most of the wells with the highest concentrations of the contaminant are nearest the Chemfab facility, officials said. Three separate tests of North Bennington’s municipal water supply came back clean.

State officials say the factory has been established as the source of the chemical, although they don’t know by what route PFOA reached residents’ water supplies. Additional results are expected in the next few days from the rest of the roughly 185 wells that were sampled within 1.5 miles of the plant.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has also initiated testing for the same class of chemicals around the former Warren Wire factory in Pownal, which, like Chemfab, manufactured products containing the polymer trademarked as Teflon. PFOA was used in the manufacture of non-stick coating but was to be phased out nationwide by 2015 under an agreement with the EPA.

The Pownal tests focus on a water supply that serves 450 residents and is about 1,000 feet from the factory.

DEC officials say these tests are being undertaken purely as a precaution and no evidence has shown PFOA contamination in the vicinity. Results are expected within two weeks.

Entrepreneur John Ransom Cook founded both Chemfab and Warren Wire more than four decades ago.

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At other PFOA-contaminated sites in the United States, the chemical was introduced into the environment through factories’ smokestacks, according to DuPont documents released in the course of a successful lawsuit against that company over pollution in West Virginia.

Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics purchased Chemfab in 2000 and closed the plant in North Bennington two years later. Alyssa Schuren, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the company moved its operations to New Hampshire at least in part to escape Vermont’s air pollution standards. The Union Leader has reported that PFOA has been found in tap water at the company’s plant in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

“When the company closed, they said part of the reason they left was because the state was requiring them to put on air pollution control devices they wouldn’t have to have in New Hampshire, so that’s why they were moving to New Hampshire,” Schuren said in an interview.

Asked for comment Tuesday on the reason for the move, Saint-Gobain spokeswoman Dina Silver Pokedoff said only that the company purchased Chemfab in 2000 and closed the plant in 2002.

Nearby residents submitted more than 30 air quality complaints against the plant to the DEC over the span of about a decade before it closed, leading to three enforcement actions, Schuren said.

Schuren said her department will require Saint-Gobain to remediate any sites polluted by PFOA. The company is reviewing hundreds of boxes of documents from the former factory in search of information that might assist the state in its investigation, officials say.

PFOA is believed to cause cancer and disrupt endocrine systems, affecting the liver, kidneys, testes and bladder. It is also thought to cause hypertension and high cholesterol.

Blood testing is available for residents whose water was contaminated, said state toxicologist Sarah Vose. The state has asked Saint-Gobain to pay for the testing, but the company has not yet responded. The federal Centers for Disease Control has said it would pay for the tests, Schuren said.

However, the results aren’t likely to predict health effects, Vose said. It takes two to four years to eliminate half the PFOA in the human body at any time, Vose said, and the chemical doesn’t metabolize in humans.

The pollutant is found to have contaminated water throughout the United States, and North Bennington wells are showing concentrations she described as “in a range that’s pretty high, compared to what’s seen in other parts of the country.”

“It is a significant contamination of groundwater,” Vose said.

Lawmakers say they’re already contemplating legislation in response to the incident.

“Without a doubt, this is a big, top priority for me,” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington. He said time remains in this year’s legislative session to propose and adopt laws that might help collect data on toxins around the state.

“Let’s find out what else has been used,” he said. “Right now we’re testing for PFOA, but what else is out there that has been used?”

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Campion said he will be meeting with officials at the Agency of Natural Resources to seek suggestions for a meaningful legislative response.

The state set an advisory limit for PFOA in drinking water — 20 parts per trillion — in response to the Chemfab contamination, Schuren said. No federal regulatory limits exist for the chemical, although the EPA advises against exposure to water containing PFOA in concentrations greater than 400 parts per trillion.

Around 100,000 other chemicals whose health effects are unknown also lack established federal regulatory limits, Schuren said.

Health advocates say this represents a policy failure.

“The way our system works, is … you can keep using chemicals until they’re proven to be bad,” said Shaina Kasper, a community organizer at the Toxics Action Center’s Montpelier office. “It puts that burden on people who don’t even know they’re being exposed.”

The DEC will hold a public meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Bennington College where full results of the well testing will be presented, along with a course of action in response, Schuren said. The state may expand the range of testing in North Bennington in response to further test results, she said.

Correction, 9:40 a.m., March 16, 2016: Alyssa Schuren’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Also incorrect was the statement that Saint-Gobain would pay for blood testing for residents. The company has yet to respond to the state’s request.

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Mike Polhamus

About Mike

Mike Polhamus wrote about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He formerly covered Teton County and the state of Wyoming for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in Jackson, Wyoming. Polhamus studied at Southwestern Oregon Community College, University of Oxford and Sarah Lawrence College. His research has been commissioned on a variety of topics such as malnutrition and HIV, economic development, and Plato’s Phaedo. Polhamus hails originally from the state of Oregon. He now lives in Montreal.

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