MONTPELIER — A possible carcinogen found in a nearby New York town has also been found in several private wells in North Bennington, the Shumlin administration announced Thursday morning after receiving test results just hours earlier.
The chemical, Perfluorooctanoic, or PFOA, is the same chemical that was found in the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., that has drawn national attention. It was that case that spurred a concerned citizen to reach out to members of the Vermont Legislature with concerns of potential contamination in North Bennington.
One company, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, operated factories that made non-stick coatings in both towns under the Chemfab name in recent decades. The New York plant is still operating while the North Bennington facility, which was purchased by Saint-Gobain in 2000, was closed in 2002.
“Basically, the bad news is that the test results came back this morning and after testing … five different wells and the public water supply, it has come back that the five wells are contaminated, the public water supply is not,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said at a hastily arranged State House news conference. “When folks heard about that through the press, my agency got calls from Sens. [Dick] Sears and [Brian] Campion and others saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a Chemfab plant that used to be here in North Bennington, maybe we should check.’”
The state has set the standard level for PFOA at 20 parts per trillion. Shumlin said three private residential wells that were tested showed levels of PFOA ranging from 40 parts per trillion to 2,880 parts per trillion. A business in the area, Pembroke Landscaping, has a well that showed PFOA levels of 168 parts per trillion. A public wastewater treatment plant, which is not used for potable water, showed PFOA levels of 618 parts per trillion.
“Obviously, that’s a level of concern to all of us,” the governor said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has identified four more residential wells that may be affected, state officials said. Testing is now being conducted on those wells and residents are being provided drinking water. PFOA can be harmful if ingested but it is not absorbed through the skin if present in water used for washing.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has a guidance level of 400 parts per trillion of PFOA. Initial testing at a home in Hoosick Falls showed a level of 540 parts per trillion. Testing of groundwater beneath the New York factory showed a level of 18,000 parts per trillion. In New York, Saint-Gobain has agreed to provide bottled water for residents and is paying for a $2 million filtration system at the village’s water treatment facility. It has not admitted responsibility, however.
The factory in North Bennington was situated near Route 67A on Water Street near the Walloomsac River. The state has focused its attention so far on an area between the Paper Mill and Henry covered bridges. The river, which is stocked with trout by the state and a popular fishing spot, has not yet been tested, according to state officials, but may be in the future.
“We’re hoping it’s fairly confined to a limited area around the plant but we don’t know that,” said Chuck Schwer, director of DEC’s Waste Management and Prevention Division.
Schwer said PFOA would have first been released into the atmosphere from the plant before settling into the ground.
“We’re taking the situation very seriously. Contact our office if you feel your well is at risk and you want us to sample. We’re definitely going to do additional sampling to make sure there aren’t other wells that are contaminated, and if they are, we’ll respond appropriately,” he said.
Shumlin said his administration took several immediate steps upon learning of the contamination.
“We’ve notified the homeowners, the families, who have contaminated wells. We are immediately going to get them clean water. We’re going to continue testing in the area to see if there are other wells that are contaminated. We are going to immediately look into the obvious option of trying to run the municipal water supply down to that area of North Bennington, which would get them clean water. We’re going to take all kinds of other steps, but want to make clear we just figured this out several hours ago and wanted the public to know what we’re doing,” the governor said.
DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said a public forum will be held at the North Bennington Fire Station at 4 p.m. on Friday to allow residents to learn more about the situation. The department is also working to determine if Saint-Gobain is responsible for the contamination.
“We were heartened to see that the municipal water supply in Bennington was not impacted,” she said. “We are looking now to determine who the responsibility party is and if it’s the same responsibility party in New York. We have reached out to the Chemfab company to start that conversation.”
Shumlin said the state has not yet been able to determine if Saint-Gobain is responsible for the contamination, but has “started digging into it.”
“We will work together with the state of New York who’s going through a similar process. We haven’t figured that out yet, but obviously, we’re going to want accountability,” he said. “We’ll be digging into who created this problem and how can they help us pay for it.”
“We will ask the company, if it is in fact ChemFab, to take responsibility for the costs associated with dealing with the tragedy of this pollution,” the governor added.
Dina Silver Pokedoff, senior manager of branding and communication for Saint-Gobain, said the company has agreed to cover the cost of water and filtration at the sites where PFOA was detected.
“We understand that tests commissioned by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation showed no detection of PFOA in the public water system for Bennington. The tests did reveal elevated levels of PFOA in three residential private wells, as well as two commercial sites. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics has contacted state and local officials and has offered to fund the provision of bottled water and point-of-use filtration systems for these locations and others that might be affected. We will cooperate with all local, state and federal officials as they investigate and manage this issue,” she wrote in an email to the Vermont Press Bureau.
Saint-Gobain did not manufacture any PFOA or Polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as PTFE, at the site, according to Pokedoff, whose statement did not admit fault or liability on behalf of the company.
“The PTFE raw materials that were purchased during our operation of the site did include PFOA. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics never manufactured PFOA or PTFE at any of its locations. We purchase PTFE from suppliers to manufacture products for various industries,” she wrote.
Commissioner of Health Dr. Harry Chen said PFOA does he does not anticipate any “acute health effects.” But the Department of Health will be helping those impacted to determine the scope of exposure.
“For individuals in North Bennington, as soon as they’re not using their water, not drinking their water, there is no ongoing exposure. We don’t expect there to be kind of acute effects from drinking the water. It tends to be more cumulative in terms of the potential health risks, which are possibly cancer, possibly some endocrine problems down the line,” he said.
The chemical is found in many places and would be found in most people’s blood, according to Chen.
“PFOA is a ubiquitous chemical. It’s all over. If we tested everybody’s blood here there would be levels in our blood from our day-to-day exposure. Blood testing is an option that we’ll discuss with our residents and the local health care providers to really express what level of exposure … may have been ongoing through drinking the water,” he said.
Chen said he was not trying to downplay potential adverse health impacts.
“I think we have to take it seriously. What I’m trying to communicate is there’s nothing that we have to take the lights and sirens out to treat people. I think it’s important that people are aware of it. I think it’s important that people test their wells and if they are positive that we work with them and give them the information they need to assess what level of risk they have now and then ongoing in the future,” Chen said.
He said the department has not yet had an opportunity to investigate if there are higher rates of cancer or other health problems in the area.
Shumlin, noting the recent health crisis in Flint, Mich., and in New York, said he wanted to provide Vermonters with as much information as he could as soon as it was available.
“There have been some governors around America recently who have been accused of not divulging the facts they had that the public should have known. We figured this out two hours ago. We thought it was better to let you know exactly where we are,” Shumlin said.
Meanwhile, Sears, the longest-serving member of the Bennington-area delegation, said he was happy with the administration’s response.
“I think it’s a complement to all of the commissioners here to have gone so rapidly. I think we’re all concerned. There are a lot of homes further down the Walloomsac, so we’re all concerned about that. We’re concerned about the landscaping business. But, we have faith in our government, anyway, in protecting our citizens,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president who spent Thursday speaking to residents in Flint, Mich., about water quality issues there, issued a statement urging the state to “hold the polluters responsible.”
“I am very concerned that Vermont environmental officials have found high levels of a possible carcinogen in several North Bennington wells,” Sanders said in a statement released by his Senate office. “The state must continue to aggressively investigate the well water situation in North Bennington, keep families informed, and ensure Vermonters have access to clean and safe water. Moreover, the state must hold the polluters responsible for their actions.”