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

Saint-Gobain Rep Weighs In On PFOA Contamination

Environmental officials suspect the Chemfab plant in North Bennington has been emitting the chemical PFOA through its smokestacks for years

Yet since the 1960s, the chemical manufacturer DuPont had information thatPFOA may be linked to heightened cancer risks. It wasn't until a lawsuit in the mid-2000s that the company shared this information with the Environmental Protection Agency.

(You can read about how the EPA has very little power to regulate chemicals here.) 

In 2000, the Chemfab plant was purchased by the French-based company Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, and the company is responsible for any environmental clean-up stemming from the plant's long history.  

By all accounts, Saint-Gobain has been quite responsive to the community since the contamination was discovered. They've paid for bottled water, carbon filters and coordinated with state officials.

VPR spoke with Julia DiCorleto, General Manager of Foams & Tapes at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.

As DiCorleto explains, when the plant was operating it used PFOA and the synthetic fluoropolymer PTFE(the chemical in Teflon) to create water-repellant coatings.

When it came to disposing of these elements and other waste from the production process, DiCorleto says the facility followed both local and federal requirements. 

On proper waste disposal 

"As you know from how we have stepped up and been involved in [the current] situation, we do have a very strong commitment to the environment and health and safety. And so we do adhere strictly to all of the regulations and requirements that are local as well as national," says DiCorleto.

"In this case, there certainly is some waste that is generated but all of that was disposed of in ways that were within regulation. I don't have precise information at the moment of exactly ...where that was."

In 2001, shortly after acquiring the ChemFab plant in North Bennington, the company decided to close it and move it's operations to Merrimack, New Hampshire. 

"It was really a business decision based on efficiencies of operations," she says. "At that point, there was a decision to group operations that were similar that had been spread across different plants. And instead, to really specialized plants in regards to certain operations." 

On if the plant closed because of strict emissions standards

However, according to a 2001 Bennington Banner article, Stephen Hutter, the general manager of the specialty coated fabrics division at Saint-Gobain,  said that the plant's ongoing challenge of keeping emissions within Vermont regulatory standards was a factor in the decision to close the plant.

Vermont required emissions abatement equipment called catalytic incinerators to clean up the emissions. New Hampshire did not require those incinerators.  It's unclear if those incinerators would have captured the chemical PFOA, but they were intended to address other pollutants being emitted. 

DiCorleto said she could not comment on Hutter's comments. 

"There are certainly standards that, in New Hampshire, we have worked carefully with the local state officials to make sure that we can continue to operate properly in the state," explains DiCorleto. "We've worked very hard to bring our properties into alignment with standards." 

On whether Saint-Gobain suspected health or environment risks

Decades before Saint-Gobain acquired the North Bennington plant in 2000, the manufacturer of PFOA, DuPont, had studies showing possible health risks associated with the chemical.  In the mid-2000s this information was released to the Environmental Protection Agency and the public as part of a lawsuit.  

When asked if Saint-Gobain was aware of any health and environment risks during its brief tenure operating the North Bennington plant, DiCorleto says "around the time period of 2004, 2005 and 2006 there started at that point, to be a lot of communication shared with us from our suppliers... and certainly the EPA had taken notice of the fact that PFOA was very persistent in the environment." 

As part of a settlement with the EPA, DuPont and other manufacturers agreed to phase out use of PFOA by 2016.   

On liability

When Saint-Gobain purchased the ChemFab plant in 2000, it did take on the liability for the plant's history, according to an email from a company representative: "when Saint-Gobain acquired Chemfab in 2000, we purchased them outright, which does include the history of operations."

Last week, Saint-Gobain filed a complaint in Washington Superior Court on the state's ground water standard that set a level of 20 parts per trillion, arguing that this standard was too stringent.   Read more about that story here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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