MONTPELIER — Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren was preparing to testify in front of a Senate Committee on the morning of Feb. 25 when news of drinking water contamination in North Bennington was delivered, kicking off an all-out effort by her department and the governor’s office to address an alarming situation.
“I was just about to go down and testify in Senate Natural Resources and Energy … and we had 10 minutes until we were going to catch the bus. The division director … comes running in, he opens the door, he’s red-faced, he sits down and he says, ‘We have the test results back from Bennington,’” Schuren said in an interview at DEC’s main office. “I immediately feel myself just sit up straighter, because you could tell by his face that this was not going to be good news.”
The news was not good. Five wells in North Bennington had tested positive for perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The chemical is known as an emerging contaminant and was used to make Teflon and other non-stick coatings. It has been linked to some health problems, including certain cancers and low birth weight.
The Shumlin administration’s response to PFOA contamination in Southern Vermont is receiving praise, but the focus is now shifting from emergency response to long-term solutions and plenty of challenges remain, including proving that Saint-Gobain, which owned the now-closed factory, is the responsible party.
The chemical was first found in five private wells in North Bennington. Testing there was triggered by local residents’ concerns with PFOA contamination discovered in nearby Hoosick, New York. Both towns were home to factories owned by the same company, although the New York facility is still operating.
The initial test results prompted DEC to create a 1.5 mile radius around a former Chemfab factory that was shuttered in 2002 after it was purchased by Saint-Gobain in 2000. So far, test results have found more than 100 wells in North Bennington with varying levels of PFOA contamination, and one well in Bennington, where Chemfab was originally located.
On Thursday, testing of a public water supply serving about 450 people in Pownal showed slightly elevated levels of PFOA above the state’s 20 parts per trillion advisory level. Officials believe the chemical was emitted at the former Warren Wire facility, which is now used by Mack Molding for storage.
State officials jumped into an emergency response almost immediately after the initial test results were received on the morning of Feb. 25.
“We said, ‘OK, let’s make a plan. We need to share this information with the governor. We need to figure out how to share it with the community. We need to expand the scope,” Schuren said. “I caught the bus, I went to the State House. At this point I thought I was still going to testify. I don’t know why,” she said. “I thought for some reason I’d be able to tell the governor, brief him, testify and come back to do a response. I don’t know why I thought that and that was not what happened.”
Instead, Schuren was standing in front of reporters alongside Gov. Peter Shumlin, health officials and local lawmakers just two hours after alerting Shumlin to reveal the information to the public.
“The governor was great. He did what we hoped he would do and he knocked it out of the park. He was like, ‘We’ve got to put these out. We’ve got to tell the community right away. What’s the plan?’ We decided we would go within 24 hours down to share the results in person,” she said.
A community meeting held the next day drew a large crowd of concerned residents. State officials explained what they knew and said bottled water would be provided while further information and remediation plans were developed.
“People were very concerned, as you could imagine. The place was filled. People were spilling out. We ran out of chairs. People had a lot of questions about what this means,” Schuren said. “When we set a 1.5 mile radius, people’s reaction was a physical one. I saw people literally sigh with relief, because most of them would be tested. If they were out of the 1.5 miles they felt positive about that, too, because they felt that that radius was generally protective.”
Shumlin said in an interview that his priority was “to be transparent and tell everyone everything we know when we know it” and to try “to take a bad situation and make it better.”
“This is the kind of challenge that is a nightmare for any governor, because I always feel that my chief responsibility is to protect the heath and welfare of Vermonters. When you have the type of situation where a corporation has unknowing affected the health … of Vermonters it’s actually heart-wrenching,” he said.
State response praised by locals
The state’s response has received glowing reviews. David Monks, who retired as the vice chairman of the North Bennington Board of Trustees last week, has nothing but praise for the effort put forth by Shumlin and his team.
“I think it’s been fantastic,” he said. “It makes you proud to be living in Vermont rather than some other places when you see the response. At the outset they had no idea whether this chemical was dangerous, or how far it spread, but they jumped right in.”
Monks said those impacted by the contamination are “very pleased that the state has taken over,” but worry what will happen when Shumlin’s term ends in January. He is not seeking re-election.
“We know that this is Shumlin’s last year and we just hope that the next governor is as responsive. That’s the concern, because Shumlin has been very, very responsive to everything,” Monk said. “They publicized it immediately, which I think a lot of government officials would have said, ‘Let’s put a lid on it and keep it quiet.’ I think that was something that was a risk. It could have raised a lot of panic. Of course, once you do that you better be able and willing to respond because you’re opening a can of worms.”
Shumlin said he is committed to ensuring that the state’s assistance continues after he leaves office.
“I have made a promise to the people of Bennington County that I’m going to do everything that I possibly can as governor to make the best of an awful situation and work together with the next governor to encourage them to make this a top priority, because this challenge is going to go on for a number of years,” the governor said.
The state has also secured bottled water for the residents in Pownal served by the Fire District No. 2 water sources that tested positive for PFOA. Saint-Gobain has agreed to cover the costs of bottled water and the cost of installing point of entry water filtration systems at each location in North Bennington that tested positive.
Monks said North Bennington residents are relieved the company has also been responsive.
“They have not objected to anything they’ve been asked to do. We’re very happy, even though it was not their problem,” he said.
Monk said he and others in North Bennington are conflicted about who is ultimately responsible, but pleased the state and the company have so far worked together to ensure that residents are taken care of.
“It’s unfortunate. Somebody’s responsible, even though at the time they were doing this they were not doing anything wrong. That’s the problem with any of these environmental questions,” he said. “You kind of say, ‘Gee, is this fair to them that they have to pay when they didn’t do anything illegal?’”
“It’s a big tangle. So far, Saint-Gobain has been very, very cooperative, so people aren’t afraid that they aren’t going to see this through to the end,” Monks added.
Schuren credited the state’s prompt response to Vermont’s small size, allowing it to be more nimble.
“We have very few layers of bureaucracy, even in a big bureaucracy there are few layers compared to many states. Just the fact that a line worker was able to talk to their supervisor who was able to talk to me and I was able to talk to the governor, all in 45 minutes, is pretty special,” she said. “The fact that we had citizen legislators who really cared and listened to folks in the area and wanted to be responsive was a big one.”
Vermont also has a more stringent standard for PFOA than New York and the federal government. In New York, safe levels are considered to be below 100 parts per trillion, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set an unenforceable guideline of 400 parts per trillion. Schuren said Vermont’s 20 parts per trillion level has given residents more comfort.
“I think there’s been a real question of what’s the right level. (Vermont’s) health advisory takes into account a small child,” she said. “People have been very happy about that in the community. They feel like, ‘Well, we should be thinking about this from the perspective of the most vulnerable.’”
Vermont officials have also received tips from New York officials, that has allowed the response to be more focused.
“We are not the first state to go through this. We are very, very lucky to be able to learn from the lessons of New York,” Schuren said. “With Flint, Michigan, it’s really put the country on alert for our drinking water. The climate, having that type of climate, has allowed I think a partnership between states.”
Vermont’s response to the PFOA contamination is a stark contrast with Flint, where Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials were slow to reveal lead contamination in the water system. At the Feb. 25 press conference, Shumlin made it a point to tell reporters that his administration was making the PFOA contamination public as soon as possible.
Schuren also credited the state’s Environmental Contingency Fund for providing state officials a pot of money to immediately provide relief without worrying about how it will be paid for.
“We haven’t had to tap that fund. But at the time we didn’t know any of this. On day 1, we knew that we had money in a fund,” she said. “That pot of money was critical for us to know, ‘OK, we can do what’s protective of human health and the environment and we don’t have to worry.’ No delay. We would have done the right thing anyway, but knowing that you can is a nice thing to know.”
The fund, so far, remains untapped. Saint-Gobain is picking up the tab for bottled water, testing and filtration systems at impacted homes and businesses. But the state is now requesting even more from the company.
“The potentially responsible party is cooperating. For now. We’ve sent them a couple of letters at this point asking for them to cover more than what they’ve committed to so far,” Schuren said.
State seeks more from Saint-Gobain
Among the additional requests is covering the cost of blood tests for impacted residents, paying for the state’s costs associated with state time and resources and expanding the municipal water supply in North Bennington to those impacted. The requests, particularly expanding the municipal water supply, could be significantly more expensive than what the company has already agreed to.
Dina Silver Pokedoff, a spokeswoman for the company, said it has agreed to fund an engineering team to help DEC with its investigation. The company has not yet committed to anything else, however.
Schuren said the state is now “at a point where things are changing.” The emergency response is drawing to a close, and state officials are settling into addressing long-term solutions. That includes determining exactly who the responsible party is in North Bennington. To that end, Schuren has requested that Saint-Gobain turn over historic records dealing with the plant.
“They have 701 boxes of documents that are in no order. They’re not catalogued. They’re not labeled. So, they’ve asked for some more time, which we’ve granted,” she said.
Schuren said officials want process charts to show how PFOA was used so the state can determine if the company is responsible.
“I think it will be a challenge. There are certain documents that will be obvious, like a flow chart of the process. We’ll understand that pretty quickly,” she said.
Schuren expects the task to be complicated because PFOA was not a regulated chemical when it was in use by Chemfab.
“It might not be listed in certain documents. But if we can look at what they purchased, the quantities they purchased, and what they used and how they used it, a chemist my be able to figure out if PFOA was produced somehow or used in the process,” Schuren said. “It will be complicated, but when we get those documents we’ll be able to better start to understand this particular facility.”
Matt Chapman, general counsel for DEC, said the state must simply show that there was a release of PFOA at the North Bennington factory to pin responsibility on Saint-Gobain.
“Unlike most civil actions, where it’s a negligent standard, this is what’s called strict liability. We don’t have to show that they caused it,” he said. “We don’t have to show that they were the ones who caused it. All we have to do is show that the release took place.”
Shumlin, who has spoken with Saint-Gobain CEO Tom Kinisky and other company officials, said he is hoping the state can continue working cooperatively with the company. The governor will meet with Kinisky in Montpelier next week to continue the discussion.
“My view is that the company’s reaction so far has been everything that you would hope for. I would rather deal directly with the company to try and solve problems than to throw lawyers at it and slow things down. As long as we can make progress working directly with them, that’s what I intend to do,” Shumlin said.
Saint-Gobain agrees, according to the governor, that extending municipal water lines to impacted residents in North Bennington is the right choice. But the cost has yet to be determined.
Schuren said one DEC employee is exploring how to extend the water line in a timely fashion.
“Our permitting processes are not often set up for urgent needs like this. I just want to make sure that we’re greasing the skids to make sure that this gets top priority through all of our permitting processes,” she said. “We know there’s additional capacity in that system. That’s in the long-term solution. Frequently this takes years. I’m committed to ensuring that this happens within a year. That’s my goal.”
DEC is continuing to test wells in North Bennington, and has even expanding the 1.5 mile radius in some areas in attempt to find the end of the contamination. Schuren and other state officials say they are hoping to continue a collaborative approach to remediating the contamination, and hope to work with Pownal residents in a similar manner.
“This community has been wonderful. It actually reminds me of Tropical Storm Irene. When we’ve been handing out these test results door-to-door telling people what they mean, the biggest question we’re getting is, ‘How are my neighbors?’ I mean, people are really very kind. People have been inviting our folks in. They’ve been hugging us and feeding us,” she said. “They feel like we’re doing this together, which is wonderful in the face of things like Flint, Michigan, or other situations where that hasn’t been the case. I think that’s, in part, because of the quick response and the honesty and transparency every step of the way. But, I also think it’s kind of the nature of Vermonters, which makes you really proud to live in a state like this.”
Read the DEC’s briefing to lawmakers: