Residents target limitations of $20M PFOA settlement

Water bottles (chemfab)
Bottled water in a home in North Bennington. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — The state has fielded concerns about homeowners who won’t be getting municipal water and about other aspects of a proposed $20 million settlement over PFOA contamination around former industrial sites.

About half the properties in Bennington with tainted wells are scheduled to be connected to municipal water lines as part of the deal with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.

However, the comments haven’t spurred officials to seek changes to the agreement posted in late July. The state Agency of Natural Resources has now asked that a consent order on the partial settlement be approved as submitted in Bennington Superior Court.

Read VTDigger’s 5-part series, Teflon Town: ChemFab’s toxic legacy.

A 30-day public comment period on the deal ended Aug. 25 and drew input from several residents and one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in a private class-action suit against the company in U.S. District Court.

The state released a summary of the comments, along with responses to each from Chuck Schwer, director of the Waste Management and Protection Division of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Leslie Vey, of North Bennington, and others raised concerns that not all homes in the targeted first section of the contamination zone around the former ChemFab Corp. factories will be connected to municipal water service.

In his response to Vey, Schwer said in part, “ANR went through an evaluation of each area … to evaluate the appropriate remedy for that area.”

In some cases, he said, it was determined that a point-of-entry treatment system or a newly drilled well was the best solution to contamination — either option to be funded by the company. This is because “various water quality-related problems associated with long distribution lines would have adversely affected those drinking water users,” he said.

During public information sessions on PFOA contamination surrounding the former ChemFab Corp. factories, state officials said water quality at the farthest reaches of new water lines could be compromised because of stagnation and other factors.

The $20 million settlement covers extension of Bennington and North Bennington water lines to PFOA-contaminated properties in about half the contamination zone as identified by the state.

Negotiations with Saint-Gobain — which purchased ChemFab in 2000 and closed the final factory here in 2002 — are continuing toward a settlement covering a drinking water solution for a similar number of properties roughly east of Route 7A.

Schwer said the settlement announced in July also requires Saint-Gobain to continue to monitor wells not hooked up to municipal lines to ensure that those with less than 20 parts per trillion of PFOA — the state level for safe drinking water — do not show an increase. If that occurs, he said, the company would have to re-evaluate all options for securing permanent access to clean drinking water, including a water line extension if new technology makes that feasible.

Emily Joselson, an attorney with Langrock Sperry & Wool, of Middlebury, one of four firms representing plaintiffs in the private lawsuit against Saint-Gobain, posted several comments.

Joselson expressed concerns that the state did not require Saint-Gobain to admit violations as part of the consent order. She also addressed the costs of paying for municipal water once new lines are connected and the contaminated wells shut down, and the possibility of lead contamination developing in older water pipes once municipal water is supplied to properties previously using well water.

“The state has a general practice in the context of enforcement proceedings of requiring responsible parties to admit to violations as part of the settlement,” Schwer responded.

But he added, “While this is a general rule, the state frequently, in the context of settlements for release of a hazardous material, has not required an admission of liability; and the state has made a determination that the totality of this agreement, even without an admission of liability, is in the public interest.”

He also said the settlement wouldn’t prevent homeowners from suing Saint-Gobain.

That also was part of his response concerning the municipal water bills that newly connected homeowners will have to pay.

In fact, the suit on behalf of homeowners is expected to address such costs and damages related to PFOA contamination of wells and soils, along with the costs of medical monitoring for diseases associated with PFOA exposure.

Concerning the possibility of lead contamination from old home piping, Schwer said water sampling for lead will occur at homes or businesses as part of testing to ensure lead levels are below the action level of 15 parts per billion. He said this precaution is because older internal fixtures might contain a higher lead content, and that could temporarily leach into the water with the change in water chemistry from well to municipal water.

Daniel Pratt, of Bennington, pointed to the cost of maintaining a point-of-entry filtering system if a homeowner able to connect to a water line chooses not to.

Schwer said the agreement does not cover those costs, adding that the expense would become the responsibility of the property owner unless he or she successfully sued the company to recoup those costs.

In addition, Schwer said in his responses that Saint-Gobain would pay for connections to the new water lines initially but that the consent order does not cover anyone who declines the connection at this time but decides later to ask for a connection.

Another commenter raised concerns about having PFOA in a well but not at a level above 20 parts per trillion, where the homeowner is not currently receiving bottled water or a point-of-entry filtering system.

Schwer said the consent order provides for long-term water sampling for any rise to the 20 ppt level. In the event that is reached, he said, the agreement requires that bottled water and a filtering system be immediately provided and that a permanent solution for drinking water be developed at the company’s expense.

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