Richard Spiese helps Bennington with PFAS contamination, one house at a time
Richard Spiese is Vermont’s PFAS whisperer.
Spiese works for the Department of Environmental Conservation, and he’s probably knocked on 250 or so doors around Bennington in the past seven years.
Back in 2016, he was the point person as the state eventually discovered more than 400 private wells that were polluted with PFAS, a dangerous class of chemicals that are harmful to human health.
And since June, when the state discovered a new area of PFAS contamination, he’s been at it again, visiting people in their homes to guide them through a sometimes-scary process.
On a recent afternoon he visited Eric Trites, who lives in a neighborhood in Bennington where the chemicals were recently discovered.
Spiese called him to say the state wanted to test his water. And while Trites stood in his kitchen, waiting for his water to be tested, he told me he was eager to get the results.
“If it is positive that there is PFOAs, then what’s going to happen here?” Trites asked. “I don’t really know. You know my son, and my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter live here. OK? What do I… Where am I at?”
Spiese, 63, is a large man, with a booming voice and a face that looks ready to break out in a smile at any moment. He's usually in the field, so you won't find him in a suit and tie much, save for the occasional press conferences when his higher-ups drop in to recognize the work he and his team have done.
At community meetings, because of his size, he has a way of shrinking his body slightly to not overwhelm. When he’s approached by an anxious homeowner, he listens, then pauses for an instant, before answering with sometimes troubling scientific data.
He was always a science nerd, and he got his degree in geology. Whatever communications skills he developed, he says, were not learned in the classroom.
“I have a mind that's strong in science and math,” Spiese said. “I was not as strong in communications. I always joke, when I went to Germany my fourth time, I taught English as a second language, and that's when I learned English."
“So I just think it’s important to take every person as an individual, and whatever their problem is, whatever their issue is, do whatever I can to help solve that."Richard Spiese, Department of Environmental Conservation
Spiese moved up to Vermont in the early '80s to be a ski bum in Stowe. He started working for the state in 1987, as a hazard waste site manager helping to remove underground oil storage tanks.
Since then Spiese has worked at more than 400 hazardous waste sites across Vermont. But the work here in Bennington, he says, has been different.
It is by far the largest area, with the most people he’s seen affected by industrial pollution in Vermont. It’s changed how he sees his work.
“You know I’m in Montpelier, and I’m writing letters and reviewing reports and calling people. But they’re going to their sink every day, five-ten times a day, and they’re turning their water on,” Spiese said. “And they can’t help themselves. Every time they turn it on, they think about, ‘What’s in my water? And what’s it doing to my health, and to my kids?’ And all those things. And so I learned very early on that I need to go above and beyond for people in those situations and reach out to them.”
Back in 2016, Spiese, and most everyone else in Vermont, knew very little about PFAS.
But here in Vermont, the chemicals weren’t even regulated in drinking water, because nobody thought they were here.
So Spiese walked up and down the streets of North Bennington, knocking on doors and sitting down at kitchen tables with people to try and share what he knew and how the state could help.
“He was like your big brother who was watching out for you on the playground,” said Leslie Addison, who still lives right above the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington. That factory was the source of the contamination that was found back in 2016.
Addison says it was devastating, to get a knock on the door and have someone from the state tell her that her water was poisoned, and that her land wasn’t safe for growing vegetables, and that her blood likely had dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
Through all of that, Addison says, Spiese was a trusted source of accurate information, an ally, and a comfort during a very tough time.
“He knew that I didn’t just want a scientific answer,” she said. “He knew that I was afraid for my health, and he was going to take it the extra step to explain it in a way that I felt OK. I don’t know if there’s an award for him, but there’s definitely gold stars in heaven for this man. I could get choked up saying that. He was that important in this process.”
“He knew that I was afraid for my health, and he was going to take it the extra step to explain it in a way that I felt OK. I don’t know if there’s an award for him, but there’s definitely gold stars in heaven for this man. I could get choked up saying that. He was that important in this process."Leslie Addison, Bennington resident
Spiese was instrumental in helping the state negotiate a settlement with Saint-Gobain, the international manufacturing company that owned the factory, to bring municipal water to the homes with contaminated private wells.
When he was walking around trying to convince people to hook up to the water system, some Bennington residents declined, saying they weren’t interested in giving up their well and paying for municipal water. And Spiese had to walk away, knowing they would continue to consume toxic chemicals.
Other times, Spiese would have to talk to a young couple to help them decide if it was a good time to start a family.
“So I just think it’s important to take every person as an individual, and whatever their problem is, whatever their issue is, do whatever I can to help solve that,” Spiese said. “Some people are somewhat relaxed and accepting of that, other people are terrified of any contamination. And we have to deal with all of them, and find ways to talk with all of them, where they’re at, and try and explain it in a way that they can understand.”
The state has wrapped up its latest round of water tests in southern Bennington.
It’s not clear yet if the contamination is contained to a neighborhood or two, or if it has spread farther.
And so depending on what those results say, Spiese could very likely be knocking on even more doors to help more people in southwestern Vermont deal with their poisoned water.
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