Energy & Environment

Volunteers find PFAS in 2nd location near National Guard base

The Gilbrook Natural Area in Winooski. Photo courtesy of James Ehlers

For the second time in two weeks, a volunteer group has found high levels of toxic chemicals in water bodies near a Vermont National Guard base, this time in a popular recreation area in Winooski. 

The group, called The Vermont PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition, announced Monday that they had found troubling amounts of PFAS, a class of chemicals known to cause harmful health effects, in the Gilbrook Reservoir, which connects to the Winooski River and Lake Champlain. 

Last week, the same group announced that they found evidence of the chemical class in a popular fishing spot in the Winooski River called the “Salmon Hole.” 

Manufacturers often use PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, to make nonstick, heat-resistant and water-resistant products. The chemicals take a long time to break down and are often called “forever chemicals” for that reason. 

The chemicals, used by a Teflon manufacturer in Bennington, caused pollution that has contaminated drinking water for hundreds of residents. Soldiers at the Air National Guard base trained for decades using firefighting foam, which also contained the chemicals. 

The same firefighting foam has been linked to PFAS contamination on military bases around the United States. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to regulate the chemical class, and the state currently regulates five out of more than 4,000 types of the chemical, though the state often tests for more than those five. Vermont’s limit for those five compounds in drinking water is 20 parts per trillion. 

Volunteers from the environmental coalition collected samples from the reservoir and river, then sent them to Cyclopure, a company based in Skokie, Illinois, for evaluation. 

Cyclopure’s test evaluates samples for 17 types of PFAS. In samples from Salmon Hole, the company found levels of state-regulated PFAS to be 40.5 parts per trillion, Seven Days first reported. When all of the PFAS chemicals were included, that number rose to 145.2 parts per trillion. 

In the Gilbrook Reservoir, tests found a total of 84.3 parts per trillion, with concentrations totaling 37.8 ppt for the five state-regulated PFAS compounds, according to the group. 

Winooski officials said they were not aware of the environmental group’s test results.

“We haven’t received any data related to PFAS findings so have no statement to make,” Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott said. 

State officials are looking into the results from the environmental group, said Peter Walke, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, who noted that the company’s test methodology is not certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

“It’s not necessarily that there are issues with the test,” Walke said. “It means that we want to make sure that we can understand it and understand that the results are replicable. From what I understand, the group did a good job of following protocols. PFAS testing is very sensitive and can get cross-contamination really easily.”

The contamination could be coming from multiple sites. A state report also found evidence of PFAS contamination on the site of the Champlain Cable Corporation, which is located about a mile from the reservoir, while the “northeast shore of the Gilbrook Reservoir is situated about 400 feet southwest” of the National Guard base, the group’s announcement said. 

A map of Gilbrook Natural Area, with a blue dot showing the site where testing took place. Photo courtesy of James Ehlers

James Ehlers, a water quality advocate involved with the Vermont PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition group, said he’s not interested in who caused the pollution. He would rather see state officials inform the public and address the problem.

“In our mind, the only thing we can do is make sure everyone knows so that they can, according to their own risk tolerance, take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their families,” Ehlers said. 

Walke pointed to existing efforts to test for PFAS in surface water throughout the state.

“We have launched into a multiyear monitoring project to look at both surface water and fish tissue to understand what we think the potential impacts are and to understand how protection measures should be put into place,” he said. 

State officials have conducted PFAS testing in the Winooski River, and results of PFAS in fish tissue have come back positive. Most fish likely have some levels of PFAS in their tissue because the chemicals are considered ubiquitous in the environment. On average, the levels identified by state officials were within background range. 

Money coming from federal infrastructure bills has been allocated toward addressing the PFAS problem, Walke said. Around $40 million should become available for that cause throughout the next five years. 

Citizen efforts to test for PFAS, though expensive, may become more common as communities continue to struggle with contamination. Ehlers said the group had raised around $3,000, which covers about two dozen tests. 

The results of citizen tests could help and hurt state efforts, Walke said. While different types of tests could cause confusion, the information “can identify opportunities for us to focus,” Walke said.

“Obviously, if the data that this group has discovered in the Winooski River is valid, we need to know that,” he said. “That does present some high levels for sure.”

State officials, recognizing that thousands of PFAS chemicals exist, have discussed regulating them as a class.

“Again, it comes back to our toxicological knowledge,” Walke said, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency has started regulating PFAS more stringently, which could give the state more knowledge and resources to regulate the chemicals more broadly. 

Asked whether there’s any investigation into the source of the PFAS contamination, Walke said the department is looking at National Guard data to see if “it presents something different than what we understand the results of the work, primarily at the National Guard site, have shown us, and if there's additional work that needs to be done.”

Ehlers hopes officials will act with urgency. 

“The government agencies know how deadly this stuff is,” he said. “The military has known how bad it is for decades. The testing that we’re doing — it’s not like we’re surprised. It’s not like we didn’t think it would be there. It’s to give people information and compel these agencies to do what they’re really obligated to do, which is to protect public health.”

Corrections: The PFAS chemicals were found in Winooski near Camp Johnson, a facility of the Vermont Army National Guard. The amount of money Vermont expects to receive from the federal infrastructure bills to address the PFAS problem has been corrected.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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