Once The Pride Of North Bennington, Chemfab Made Fabrics Used Worldwide, And In Space

Mar 14, 2016

A former manufacturing plant in North Bennington that's now blamed for chemical contamination of ground water once made fabrics used globally – and beyond.

The company had factories and distribution all over the world, and made specialized materials used on the International Space Station, as well as roofing fabric used on iconic structures such as the Denver International Airport and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. And the whole time, the North Bennington plant chugged on.

Now Vermont environmental and health officials say the company most likely poisoned drinking water throughout North Bennington with a suspected carcinogen, PFOA, which has already been detected in more than 30 private wells in the area.

At one time Chemfab was the pride of North Bennington.

Any time there was a Final Four tournament at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, or when the Super Bowl was at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Annette Griffith says the community noticed.

"I would tell people, 'Oh, this was the roof of the Superdome, and you know, we make that stuff, " say  Griffith, who worked at Chemfab from 1987 to 1992. 

"There was pride there," Griffith says. "We also made a big thing for something in Australia and it was an orange fabric, I'm not sure if it was an airport, or what it was, and you did take pride in those things. It was just a really big thing."

Griffith worked in what she calls the tower, a 20-foot vertical oven that cooked the chemicals on to the fiberglass fabric that was then shipped all over the world.

"The whole producing of it was simple .. But it's pretty amazing where it ended up, you know, for a little town like North Bennington." - Annette Griffith, former Chemfab employee

She says there wasn't much to it. Griffith and her co-workers would drop a chalk line on a big roll of fabric and cut it with a pair of scissors. Then they'd run the fabric through a chemical cocktail, bake it at temperatures that exceeded 650 degrees and watch the smoke rise up through the stacks.

"The whole producing of it was simple. You know, kind of a simple thing," she says. "But it's pretty amazing where it ended up, you know, for a little town like North Bennington."

And it made the company a ton of money.

John Cook started a little business in a former Volkswagen dealership in Bennington in 1968.

Annette Griffith, who worked at Chemfab in North Bennington, still has nonstick fabric produced at the plant. The company had factories and distribution all over the world, and the whole time the North Bennington plant chugged on.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The company, which was eventually named Chemfab, worked with DuPont and with Owens-Corning Fiberglass to develop a Teflon-coated fiberglass roofing material, which proved to be wildly popular and versatile. The company even made a 100-acre covering for Saudi Arabia that was used to protect pilgrims going to Mecca.

Sales peaked in 1999 at about $126 million.

"Areas where there isn't a lot of wealth, I think historically have been misused ... It's the kind of thing you think about and it weighs on your mind a little bit." - Sen. Brian Campion, Natural Resources and Energy Committee

In 2000 the French company Saint-Gobain bought Chemfab. The company closed the North Bennington plant two years later.

PFOA was legal during the plant's years of operation. But it's now suspected that the chemical, which was just one of many used in the application process, blew out of the smokestacks and eventually made its way into the groundwater in North Bennington.

Sen. Brian Campion represents Bennington, and he's a member of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

"I worry, you know. Areas where there isn't a lot of wealth, I think historically have been misused," Campion says. "And parts of this area, is an old industrial area. So, like many people, it's the kind of thing you think about and it weighs on your mind a little bit."

Companies such as Chemfab grew at a time when thousands of new chemicals were introduced into the marketplace.

And in the name of job creation and property tax growth, small factories set up, usually in low-income neighborhoods.

Campion says it's the government's role to make sure the water's clean and safe. And he says Vermont will likely be cleaning up areas around the state, including North Bennington, for a very long time.