Bennington Residents Are Still Waiting For A Long-Term Fix For PFOA Contamination

Apr 24, 2017

Bennington residents who have been dealing with contaminated water are starting to get frustrated with the state's ability to find a long-term solution to their problem.

About 270 private wells are contaminated with the industrial chemical PFOA, and the state installed carbon filters in each home as a stop-gap measure.

The filters remove the PFOA, which studies have linked to thyroid issues, cancer and high blood pressure. They also affect the water pressure, and as long as the contaminated water runs through the pipes, there's little chance of selling a home for its full value.

The state wants to extend nearby municipal waterlines as a long-term solution.

John Camelio has been living with the carbon filters for about a year now. Since the system that's removing the PFOA affects the water pressure, if Camelio's washing machine is running, the shower will slow down.

And when guests stay over, well, you just have to wait in line.

The state says Saint-Gobain, the company that's suspected of polluting the water, should pay for a $30 million municipal waterline extension to the homes with contaminated wells.

But talks between the two sides have yet to reach a settlement.

Camelio says he's ready for a resolution.

The water filter in John Camelio's house in Bennington affects the water pressure. Camelio and his wife don't drink their water because they don't fully trust the filter system.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"The long-term solution is municipal water," Camelio says. "That's what virtually everyone wants. They want municipal water. But if we don't hear something by the end of April here, there're going to be a lot of people upset."

The state of Vermont says PFOA is dangerous above the level of 20 parts per trillion. But the federal government, and Saint-Gobain, use a level of 70 parts per trillion.

So if Vermont accepted the higher federal standard, about a third of the homes would be taken off the list because they'd fall below that federal standard.

The project, in turn, would be far easier — and cheaper, because the houses with higher PFOA readings are mostly clustered near the old factory.

Julie Moore, Vermont's secretary of natural resources, says the state isn't willing to budge on the health standard.

"We've been using bottled water for over a year. And it's getting old." — Jim Sullivan, Bennington resident

"We are approaching the negotiations that 20 [ppm] is our standard, and we are sticking to that," says Moore. "We think our science is sound and that 20 is the right number to be protective of human health."

Construction season is short in Vermont, and state officials hoped to start work in the spring, whether or not there was a settlement agreement in place with Saint-Gobain.

But now Moore says if work is started before a settlement is in place, then it would be much harder to get Saint-Gobain to pay if the state has to sue the company following unsuccessful settlement talks.

"We are continuing to do everything we can to get shovels in the ground this year, and remain optimistic that that is still a possibility," Moore says. "But to be blunt, if Saint-Gobain walks away from the settlement negotiations, it may not be possible for us to complete the investigation we need to complete to ensure that the polluter will ultimately pay, and have shovels in the ground this year."

Moore says she knows people in Bennington are frustrated, and she says the state is also running out of patience.

If the two sides can't reach a settlement soon, and Saint-Gobain refuses to pay for the waterline extension, then Moore says the state will break off talks and consider a lawsuit against the company to recoup costs associated with the project.

Most of the homes that were built above the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington have private wells contaminated with PFOA.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Back in Bennington, people who have been living with the filter systems think it's time to make some decisions. Jim Sullivan is one of them.

"What I would like to see and what a lot of people would like to see is just a drop-dead date," he says. "You know, we're the affected parties, and everybody's very, very anxious to find out where things are and when things might move forward. We want to know if Saint-Gobain is going to pay for these waterline extensions or not. I don't want to presuppose that they're going to pay or they're not going to pay, we just want a decision."

Sullivan has had some leaking issues with the filter system, and he still doesn't like to consume the filtered water.

Even his dogs have been living on bottled water.

Saint-Gobain is paying for the water and for the filter maintenance, but Sullivan says the whole thing is just a big hassle.

"It's been a year. Believe me, it's getting old already for a lot of reasons," Sullivan says. "We still don't drink the water. We don't fully trust the system. So we've been using bottled water for over a year. And it's getting old."

The Agency of Natural Resources will be in Bennington on April 27 to give the community an update.

A spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain says the company knows about the water pressure issues, and she said they were "engaged in negotiations and encouraged by the progress that was being made."

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