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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Testing For Possible Carcinogen In North Bennington Well Water Begins

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Brian Phillips, an environmental scientist, collects water in North Bennnigton for testing. Last week, five wells in North Bennington near the former Chemfab factory tested positive for the suspected carcinogen, PFOA.

State officials are testing private wells in North Bennington for PFOA, a suspected carcinogen. And the only way to find those wells to test is by going door-to-door.

Richard Spiese is leading the effort to test every private well within 1.5 miles of the former Chemfab factory in North Bennington. Spiese is the hazardous waste management project director with the Department of Environmental Conservation. He and his team are going from residence to residence, collecting samples to test for PFOA.

As Spiese makes his way down North Bennington Road, he approached one residence and knocks on the door. No one answers.

“Looks like we struck out again,” says Spiese. “OK. Let's go across the street and hopefully we'll find someone in one of them.”

In the 1990s, Chemfab used PFOA to affix protective coatings to fabric.

The factory is the suspected source of the chemical, which was already detected in five private wells.

Since those wells tested positive last week the state tracked down about 150 homes and businesses with wells, and so Spiese and his team have been busy.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Richard Spiese takes notes at each spot while collecting water samples. Everyone who had their water tested will be contacted when the samples come back, DEC Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said.

"All the residences I'm going in, I see they've collected bottled water, and it's an opportunity to talk one-on-one and answer questions they might have,” Spiese explains. “It's just time-consuming, as you can see.”

As Spiese is talking, he knocks on another door. This time there’s an answer.

“Hello. Are You Walt? Hello Walt,” he says. “Richard Spiese, state of Vermont and we're here to take a sample of your water supply for you."

Vermont environmental and health experts have been working non stop to identify where the private wells are.

North Bennington's municipal water supply, which is located miles away from the Chemfab plant, has been tested and is safe to drink. But the state says anyone who has a well within 1.5 miles of the plant should not drink their water until the test results are complete.

Spiese says the state drew a 1.5-mile circle around the Chemfab plant because they hope that the chemical hasn't traveled any farther, but they'll know more when the results are available.   

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Andy Beckerman accepts a delivery of bottled water at his home in North Bennington. Beckerman has been told to avoid his well water until testing can be completed.

“People are really happy to see us,” Spiese explains. “They know we're in town. They know we're sampling. Most of them have already asked us to come sample. They want to know what's in the water, so we want to get them that information as quickly as we can.”

Spiese drove up North Bennington Road with an environmental scientist who collected the samples from both businesses and homes. They collected a sample from the home of Andy Beckerman.

Beckerman lives just above the former Chemfab plant and a neighbor was one of the first whose well tested positive. He says the municipal water line runs close to his house, and he hopes it'll be possible to run a line up to his development. But he wonders about the homes that don't have that option.

"Will it be easy for the folks down the river that way, or over on the other side where they have wells?” Beckerman asks. “I'm concerned for the other 80 wells and those people. I'm hoping it's really localized and it's just us."

The tests are sent to a lab in Wisconsin, and it takes about two weeks before the results come back. The state expects to complete most of the testing this week, and then it'll be a pretty anxious couple of weeks before the people in North Bennington know just how far the contamination has spread.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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