Toxic Utility Pole Treatment Threatens State Drinking Water Supplies

Aug 8, 2014

The state’s utility regulators are about to launch an investigation into the use of a toxic chemical on utility poles around the state.

Utilities have been using the chemical – fully aware of its risks – for years with permission from state regulators.

As early as the 1950s, power and telephone companies were putting poles in the ground that were coated in Pentachlorophenol – or PCP.

Like many treatments in use back then – lead paint and asbestos, for example -  the PCP was found to be toxic to humans.

But unlike those toxins, PCP was never banned from use. The Environmental Protection Agency restricted the chemical in 1987, but regulated manufacturers are still allowed to use it on utility poles.

Now, after a Monkton family noticed a visible sheen on their drinking water, and a distinct smell, the state is looking into whether use of PCP needs to be more strictly regulated.

When PCP levels get above the state’s recognized “level of concern,” things can get ugly.

“There are short-term and long-term exposures from this and short-term exposures can be skin, eye irritation,” said Lori Cragin, who studies environmental health risks for the state. “In addition there can be things like tremors and seizures which you see with many pesticides that are above a level of concern, and then, there are cancers that have been associated with it.”

Cragin said there hadn’t been any health problems in Vermont because of PCP, but a few families have dealt with drinking water contamination in the past five years.

The Vermont Public Service Board is launching an investigation into the use of PCP by utilities after the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline had to be put on hold in areas near power lines.

The Agency of Natural Resources voiced concerns to the company that soil disturbed by construction could release PCP into nearby water supplies.

“In the limited information that we have, it has been shallow drinking water supplies and work going on near it that we’ve seen [PCP],” Cragin said.

"Generally if there's [PCP] contamination in a water supply you should be able to smell it." - Tim Follensbee, VELCO

The most recent contamination, which happened after the Vermont Electric Power Company replaced a pole near a Monkton well, caused serious problems in the resident’s water supply.

The company helped the family drill a new well and did extensive testing on the property.

VELCO’s Tim Follensbee said at a community meeting Thursday that residents who can’t smell the chemical in their water are usually in the clear.

“It may not be a cure-all,” Follensbee said, “but from what I understand, generally if there’s [PCP] contamination in a water supply you should be able to smell it.”

But officials warn that there is a detection gap – a level of PCP that is undetectable by taste or smell but still harmful.

Residents with concerns can buy tests from the state to check their water supply.

The Public Service Board investigation kicks off next Thursday.

The board will look into common practices in the state and see what can be done to reduce health risks from PCP.