State: Do Not Drink Well Water Near North Bennington Plant

Feb 27, 2016

The state is ramping up its efforts to protect North Bennington residents from potential widespread hazardous chemical exposure.

The Department of Environmental Conservation now says that anyone with a private well within 1.5 miles of the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington should not drink their water until environmental tests are done.

And the Department of Health recommends that anyone who receives a confirmed test showing unsafe levels of the chemical should talk with a doctor about getting a blood test.

State officials were in North Bennington Friday to present their most recent information about the discovery of chemical contamination of private wells, and to try to answer questions from a large crowd of very concerned residents.

"We don't have all the answers tonight, but we want to share what we do have," said DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren. "We need answers from you on some of the questions we have tonight in terms of scope. We need to figure out who's on well water and who's on municipal water."

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Thursday that five out of six tests on private wells in North Bennington showed dangerous levels of the chemical Perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA.

The state can not yet say that the possible carcinogen was released from the Chemfab building, but the chemical was widely used as part of the company's work of affixing protective coatings to cloth.

Vermont tested the six wells after water tests from Hoosick Falls, New York showed widespread contamination.

Update 2:45 p.m. 2/29/16 Gov. Peter Shumlin's office provided this update on the situation in North Bennington on Monday:

Residents with wells being tested should not drink the water while results are pending. Bottled water will be provided and a delivery schedule will be worked out in the coming days. In the meantime, residents can pick up bottled water at the Village Variety Store located at 9 Route 67 West in North Bennington.  In addition, starting this afternoon there will be two water tanks from which residents can draw water on the corner of Scary Lane and Rt 67 and McCaters Park at the Henry Bridge.

The Health Department is committed to arranging blood tests for PFOA for people who have contaminated wells, but stresses that the number one priority is to stop the exposure and consult with your health care provider. 

“If your well is contaminated, do not use the water for drinking, preparing food, cooking, or brushing teeth,” said Health Commissioner Harry Chen, MD. "We recommend that you talk with your health care provider to consider having the routine blood tests for health conditions that may be treatable now.”

The Health Department has alerted and provided guidance to health care providers in the Bennington and Rutland area. The Health Department has produced a fact sheet about PFOA and potential health impacts, which is attached to this release.

The state has also released this fact sheet about PFOA for the residents of North Bennington.

The former Chemfab plant in North Bennington
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Original post 2/27/16 Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics owns the plant in Hoosick Falls. The company also owned the Chemfab plant before it closed in 2002.

Schuren says the state is striving to discover the source of the contaminants, adding Saint-Gobain representatives are working closely with the state at this point.

DEC Hazardous Waste Management Project Manager Richard Spiese told the crowd that the initial tests were done to see if there was contamination in North Bennington.

He says everyone was shocked at how widespread the contamination was.

"I have to tell you I was surprised," Spiese said. "I didn't think we'd find all these detects that we found. So we did, and now we're looking at expanding the testing."

"I have to tell you I was surprised. I didn't think we'd find all these detects that we found. So we did, and now we're looking at expanding the testing." - Richard Spiese, DEC hazardous waste management project manager

Spiese says the state is committed to testing every private well within the 1.5 mile radius, though he stressed that it's going to be a long time before everyone within that zone knows if their water is safe.

PFOA is classified as an emerging contaminant under Environmental Protection Agency rules, which means the chemical was not highly regulated when it was used and it has only recently been identified as a potential carcinogen.

"I've worked on hazardous waste site cleanup work for 28 years. In those 28 years I've never sampled for PFOAs before," Spiese told the crowd. "So we are just learning about this. It is a moving target. But we're going to do the best we can to answer all your questions."

The water tests can not be done in Vermont and there are only a handfull of labs in the country that do test for PFOA.

It will take about two weeks for the state to get results back.

State officials also called the meeting Friday to get a better understanding of how widespread the contamination might be.

DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren says the state does not yet know how widespread the contamination is around North Bennington.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

The state says the municipal water system has been tested and is safe, and many people in North Bennington are on the public system.

Residents with private wells are located in pockets around the southeastern Vermont community and the state collected information at the meeting to begin preparing for the water testing, which will start next week.

"We don't have all the answers tonight, but we want to share what we do have. We need answers from you on some of the questions we have tonight in terms of scope. We need to figure out who's on well water and who's on municipal water." - Alyssa Schuren, DEC Commissioner

Spiese also said the state does not know how  the chemical traveled from the Chemfab plant.

It could have been released from smokestacks or fans. It could have been mixed in with wastewater from the plant or leached out of dumpsters that held materials with the chemical on them.

"The real answer is we don't know for sure," Spiese said. "That's part of what we're going to be investigating over the next weeks and months to make sure we have a much better understanding of how this occurred."

The state officials answered questions for an hour from the more than 150 people who packed the North Bennington Fire Station for the meeting.

More than 150 attended a meeting in North Bennington to get more information on the potential widespread contamination of private water wells.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

One woman asked if it was safe to eat vegetables from her garden, and Spiese said more work would have  to be done to find out.

A woman asked if her horses can drink the water, and the state is recommending that all animals only drink bottled water within the 1.5 mile zone until tests are completed.

And a local doctor asked if North Bennington residents would have to pay for  their medical exams following positive water well testing.

Shannon Tatro, Department of Health nursing supervisor in Bennington, said she would have to find out the answer to that one.

Water testing will begin Wednesday and the state promised to have bottled water available early in the week.

The state will also test the Walloomsac River, including fish, for the contaminant.

State officials will also be at the North Bennington town meeting Monday night, and they promised to have a web site soon with the most recent information.