State Will Look For PFOA Contamination Beyond North Bennington

Mar 10, 2016

The state is conducting water tests on private wells in North Bennington following the discovery of the suspected carcinogen PFOA in five private wells. Now Vermont officials are setting their sights beyond North Bennington to see if the contaminant shows up in other water sources.

The chemical was used for decades before it was phased out, and it was potentially used all over the state.

Alyssa Schuren, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says her department has been receiving calls from people who say there are other sites around the state that should be tested.

"We are right now making a plan for testing outside of North Bennington," she says.

The Warren Wire Company in Pownal manufactured teflon coated wire, and the factory is just one of the sites Vermont health and environmental officials are eyeing as they begin to investigate PFOA contamination around the state.

Schuren and her team have been pretty busy in North Bennington, tracking down every private well within a mile and a half of the former Chemfab factory, which is the suspected source of the dangerous chemical.

"You make these great things ... your stain-resistant carpets, your fancy waterproof gear ... But all of those things have to be made. This chemical is used in thousands of things." - Janet Foley, Bennington College professor

But there's a new challenge emerging, as state officials try to discover other sources of potential PFOA contamination.

"We are taking a few people and looking into other industries that may have created similar type products," Schuren says. "We're going to track down every lead ... We're going to work proactively to pull together a list of other industries where we might find these chemicals. And then we're going to do some sampling in those areas as well."

PFOA was extremely useful; it allowed companies to apply a variety of different chemicals to surfaces. It was used in firefighting foam, and to put teflon on cooking utensils, waterproof materials on Gore-Tex and  flame retardants on to carpet and clothing.

DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren speaks at a meeting in North Bennington. Schuren says the department is already looking at other potential sources of PFOA across the state.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

At Chemfab in North Bennington, it was used to apply protective coatings onto fabric.

Janet Foley is a chemistry professor at Bennington College, and she says PFOA was widely used because after the application process was complete, the PFOA simply went up smokestacks or was washed down sinks.

And she says the wide ranging applications of PFOA mean it will likely turn up across Vermont and the rest of the country.

"You make these great things. You know, you make your stain-resistant carpets, your fancy waterproof gear, and everyone loves that," Foley says. "But all of those things have to be made. This chemical is used in thousands of things."

When scientists discovered that PFOA might be a carcinogen, the EPA tested public water supplies around the country.

"We need to know how to focus our resources on where we suspect problems might be. We need to figure out where PFOA was, and begin to ask lots of questions around those sites." - David Bond, Center for the Advancement of Public Action

Between 2013 and 2015,  public water supplies were tested in Bennington, Barre City, Brattleboro, Burlington, Jay Peak Basin Complex, Lyndonville, Rutland City, Shaftsbury, South Burlington and Winhall Stratton Fire District 1. PFOA wasn't detected in any of the systems.

David Bond, the associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, says the situation in North Bennington highlights just how challenging it will be to conduct statewide water safety tests.

"It's an impossible task," says Bond. "We need smarter maps. We need to know how to focus our resources on where we suspect problems might be, and a better sort of regime of tests and questions for those sites in a focused way. We haven't done that up to this point. This is one of those things we're beginning to learn, is that, figure out where PFOA was, and begin to ask lots of questions around those sites."

Small manufacturers come and go, and they can leave behind a toxic legacy.

The chemical remains hidden in the soil and water. And as soon as the situation stabilizes in North Bennington, the state says it's going to start looking for it.