North Bennington Residents Complained For Years About Chemfab Emissions

Mar 7, 2016

People who lived near the Chemfab plant in North Bennington complained for years that the emissions were making them sick. There were 32 citizen complaints between 1974 and 2000, according to documents obtained by VPR.

The Department of Environmental Conservation also brought two enforcement actions against the company in the mid 1970s.

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Jim Goodine was one of the North Bennington residents who complained about the plant. He says that sometimes emissions were so bad that he couldn't go outside.

And the smell was so oppressive that Goodine says he contacted the company, and the state, to do something.

Eventually Chemfab closed, and Goodine thought the problem was over. But with the state now testing wells in the area for a suspected carcinogen, he wonders if he should have done more.

"In hindsight I'm kicking myself as hard as I can," he says. "I feel horrible. I feel partly responsible that I didn't go to the state and say, 'You have to do something here. You have to find out what's going on.' 

When Goodine bought the parcel of land above the Chemfab factory in 1985, it felt like a slam dunk. Goodine owns a construction company and the North Bennington land sits above the Walloomsac River, with good well water, nice house sites and a view out over the valley.

He says he only noticed the emissions once in a while. But in the late 1990s, something changed.

"I grew up in central Maine where, as most people probably know, pulp mills don't smell the best. And people say, 'well, it smells like jobs,'" Goodine says. "And people kind of ignore that kind of odor. But it got worse. And by the year 2000 it was intolerable."

"I feel horrible. I feel partly responsible that I didn't go to the state and say, 'You have to do something here. You have to find out what's going on.'" - Jim Goodine, North Bennington developer

Goodine keeps information from all his jobs. And if you want to know what kind of windows he used on a house he built in 1982, he can fish the documents out from his office.

So when the state announced that anyone within a mile and a half of the former Chemfab plant shouldn't drink their well water, Goodine didn't have to search too far for his records.

He has copies of state air permits from the North Bennington plant, as well as from the plant the company owned in New Hampshire.

There are letters to company board members, responses from the state and details of meetings, many of which he says went nowhere.

Jim Goodine has records from all of his interactions with the Chemfab company, as well as with state officials.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

"You know, I'm a carpenter," he says with a laugh. "And these were big guys, industrialists with factories in different places, and they show up in Brooks Brother suits, and you feel intimidated by people like that."

The state says five private wells tested positive for the chemical PFOA, which was used at the Chemfab plant and which is a suspected carcinogen.

And now Goodine wonders if he'll ever sell the remaining lots in his development, and he's scared of what the water tests will show when the state gets the results back in two weeks.

"I wish now that I pursued this as far as I possibly could," Goodine says. "But at the time it seemed like, this is a big company. They're pushing back hard. They're threatening me with lawyers. I just backed off."

"The first thing is see the status of our wells. Do we have this stuff in it? Then go to the doctor and see what the status of our bodies is." - Andy Beckerman, North Bennington resident

The state worked closely with Chemfab though the 1980s, according to Air Quality Compliance Chief John Wakefield. Then, in the late '90s, when Goodine noticed the intense smell, the complaints picked up again.

But there were no further actions concerning odors, and the North Bennington factory closed in 2002.

"And what we said was, 'God is good,'" says Andy Beckerman, who lives in Goodine's development, and who worked with Goodine back in the '90s to try to bring attention to the emissions issue. "But it was just luck. It went away and so we forgot about it."

Andy Beckerman looks over records from when he was trying to bring attention to emission issues at the Chemfab plant in the 1990s. His daughter, Lauren, looks on.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Beckerman's neighbor's well was one of the five that showed high levels of PFOA.

His well's been tested, and like the rest of North Bennington, Beckerman has to wait two weeks until the tests come back from a lab in Wisconsin.

"It could be the tip of the iceberg for a lot of things," he says, adding that two of his neighbors, who live closer to the plant, have thyroid cancer and testicular cancer.

"And both of those are high risks for being exposed to this particular chemical," he says. "So, I think the first thing is see the status of our wells. Do we have this stuff in it? Then go to the doctor and see what the status of our bodies is."

The international firm Saint-Gobain bought the Chemfab plant in 2000. A company spokeswoman says there were no fines or enforcement actions against the North Bennington site during its operation from 2000 to 2002. The spokeswoman says Saint-Gobain followed strict environmental protocols during its two years of operation at the site. 

The state is now testing about 150 private wells within the mile-and-a-half radius of the former Chemfab plant. The results, due back in about two weeks, will show whether the exposure is limited or widespread within that radius, or if the testing has to be extended.

Gov. Peter Shumlin will be in North Bennington on Tuesday to meet with residents who have been affected by the contamination.