Gov. Peter Shumlin and top state environmental and health officials visited North Bennington Tuesday to visit with residents and property owners affected by the discovery of a potentially dangerous chemical in private wells in the community.
Officials didn’t have many new details to offer, but offered assurances to residents that the state government will do everything it can to help them.
“I am delighted to be here,” Shumlin said at a standing-room-only meeting with residents. “Obviously I wish I wasn’t, and I wish you weren’t. And we’re in this together.”
After five wells tested positive for PFOA, the state tested more homes within a mile and a half of a chemical plant that used PFOA before its closure in 2002. Officials are distributing bottled water and set up temporary water tanks in a church parking lot across the street from the chemical plant.
Alyssa Schuren, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state took action as soon as the initial test results came back.
“Since that day, we have tested … about 135 different private wells,” she said. “We haven’t stopped testing. We’ll be here today and tomorrow doing the last homes that we missed in the last week, but those test results will tell us a lot.”
Schuren said that when test results come back, likely sometime next week, officials will have a better sense of the scale of the problem and will be able to target their efforts.
Currently, officials are advising everyone within a mile and a half of the closed chemical plant to drink bottled water as a precaution, but it’s unknown how many private water supplies in the area are affected. Officials said that if the test results suggest there may be more contamination outside that radius, they will continue testing even further from the plant.
According to a fact sheet from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Health, PFOA exposure can lead to health effects “on the reproductive system, immune system, infant and child development, and possibly some cancers, specifically testicular, prostate, thyroid and kidney cancer.”
Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said the department’s review of available data showed no increased incidence of kidney cancer in the North Bennington area, but testicular cancer is too rare for the state to have enough data to determine any local variations.
Residents applauded Shumlin and thanked him and his administration for its transparent and fast response to the problem, and Shumlin assured them that he personally would make sure that the state will help.
“If ever, at any point, you feel like you’re not getting answers, like we’re being slow, like you don’t know what’s going on, call me personally because I want to hear about it,” Shumlin said.
Until test results reveal the extent of the contamination, though, there isn’t much the government can do besides provide information and keep sending clean water to residents. There are also plans to expand the municipal water supply, which tested negative for PFOA, to some homes with contaminated private wells.
Still, many of the current fixes focus on the immediate health concerns and not the long-term implications of an unknown amount of groundwater contaminated with PFOA, which officials say has a half-life of about 90 years in water, sitting below the homes and businesses of North Bennington.
The lasting effects of the contamination had some residents asking about how the contamination might affect their property values.
Sandy Sumner, a 63-year-old Bennington resident, already knows his well is contaminated; it was part of the initial testing that first revealed the problem. He said he’s not just worried about his health declining as a result of the PFOA contamination – he’s worried his property value might go down too.
“Like most Americans, your house is your largest asset. And you expect to retire on that or at least help in your retirement,” he said.