Albright: Time To Test

Mar 18, 2016

Now that the suspected carcinogen PFOA is turning up in more and more private wells in North Bennington, Vermont, and across the country, people who live near possibly contaminated sites are justifiably worried.

In Vermont, state health officials are responding quickly to the crisis, expanding the radius for testing for the chemical that’s been used in the manufacture of non-stick surfaces like Teflon. But it’s puzzling to me why Vermont’s environmental regulators seem taken by surprise. It’s been reported that North Bennington citizens living near the Chemfab plant, where PFOA has been found in drinking water, started complaining about getting sick back in 1974, at about the same time the state took enforcement actions against the manufacturer. Surely there were enough red flags then to spur water tests, or if not then, in 2014, when the EPA very publically declared PFOA an emergent contaminant.

Meanwhile, worried homeowners who don’t live near North Bennington or Pownal and depend on private wells will, at least for the time being, have to test their own water. But that’s not easy.

When I called the state’s new PFOA hotline, an operator suggested I contact one of the EPA-approved laboratories certified for PFOA testing found on the Department of Conservation website. The only Vermont-based lab listed is Test-America, in South Burlington. But as a company official explained to me on the phone, the state’s list is wrong. Test-America in Vermont does not have instruments calibrated to find PFOA. And even if they did, they’d charge a couple hundred dollars to analyze each water sample - more than many well owners can easily afford.

Perhaps the state needs to lean more heavily than it has on ALL manufacturers who used PFOA or similar chemicals in Vermont to pay for pro-active, and not just re-active, well testing near their sites.

In the early 1970s, I was a Bennington College student living off campus about a mile from the Chemfab plant. Luckily, both my rental property and Bennington College drew water from a public supply that has recently passed safety tests. The College has helpfully been holding public meetings and will host a major symposium about water quality this April.

But over the next months, maybe years, troubling questions will surface about who knew what and when, and how victims of this disaster can be found and compensated. Manufacturers, government, and residents should be thinking together, sooner rather than later, about remediation and prevention of tainted water.

I’m reminded of the bill that Governor Shumlin vetoed in 2011, that would require testing of any newly installed wells. Maybe that deserves a second look.