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State Official: Investigation Into PFOA Contamination 'Will Go On For Months'

Courtesy of Hansi Wang
The latest map of the "PFOA Area of Interest" at the state's North Bennington information center. The red circle marks the 1.5-mile radius around the shuttered ChemFab facility.

People in North Bennington are set to get an update Wednesday night on the widening water contamination problem in their village. 

State test results came out Tuesday afternoon showing that 52 out of 67 private wells contained unsafe levels of a chemical known as PFOA. Results from the approximately 183 different water supplies tested will continue to come in over the course of the next week. 

Over the weekend, state officials opened an information center for residents on Main Street in Bennington.

Richard Spiese is the hazardous waste management project director for Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation and has been leading the testing on the ground.

Spiese spoke with VPR from the information center in downtown Bennington about the ongoing testing, how affected residences are handling the news and what to expect in the coming days.

On the scope of sampling efforts in the area: 

"We had a sampling plan over the last couple of weeks where we've been going out and sampling as many wells as we can and everyone who signed up to be sampled within 1.5 miles of the old ChemFab facility.

"We sampled approximately 183 different water supplies in the North Bennington area and as more and more results come in we find out more and more about wells that have been impacted with PFOA and wells that don't have any PFOA in them at all."

On what services are available at the Bennington information center:

"Probably the most important one is the one you mentioned, which is giving a place for residents who have questions to be able to reach out to us, anytime during the day. So that we can either answer the question directly if we know the answer, we also update maps and sampling results. We are also going door-to-door.

"We've also begun soil sampling today and that's going to take the better part of a week to complete and probably as many as 30 days to get the results back … But these investigations will go on for months to answer a lot of these questions that we have." — Richard Spiese, hazardous waste management project director for the Department of Environmental Conservation

"From [the Bennington information center] we collate the sampling results and send them out with couriers ... who go out and meet with the people to let them know what we found in our first signs of sampling and to answer questions. We spend anywhere from five minutes to a half an hour with people going through what we know about what's going on and answering questions that as people bring them up."

On how residents are responding:

"Some people move through the stages much quicker than the others. I've seen everything from people who are on the verge of crying to people who are angry, to people who actually laugh about it because that's how they're coping with the stress. There's no question they're stressed down here; people are nervous. They're concerned about their homes and their health and what's going to be next. 

On funding the response to the POFA contamination: 

Spiese says Saint-Gobain, the parent company of ChemFab, is paying for bottled water and the well tests. Spiese says the state has also "made a request" to Saint-Gobain to cover overtime for state workers and other related costs.

"And although no one is certainly exactly what their response will be my understanding at this point is that Saint-Gobain is trying to understand what those costs are. And I have every hope that they're going to step up and cover that, assuming that they're found to be responsible for this contamination. 

"But if they don't ... that is secondary — who's going to pay for it — to actually getting this work done." 

On when North Bennington will have a full picture of the contamination:

"As soon as we find out whatever we find out we're going to share it with the community. But the water sample results are coming in and we should have all of those by the end of next week. 

"We've also begun soil sampling today and that's going to take the better part of a week to complete and probably as many as 30 days to get the results back. We want to have a better understanding of what's going on with the soils in that pathway. But these investigations will go on for months to answer a lot of these questions that we have." 

There will be a public meeting about the water situation Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Tishman Lecture Hall at Bennington College.

Correction, 3/17/16, 9:43 a.m. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the information center was in North Bennington. In fact, it is in Bennington.

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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