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As Bennington Plans For PFOA Fix, It's Unclear Who Will Pay

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Bennington Water System operator Brian Billert looks over Bolles Brook, the source of the town's clean water. Officials want to extend water lines to properties with groundwater contaminated by PFOA, but it's not clear who will pay.

Two recently completed engineering reports find that it could cost $17 million to bring clean water to the properties around North Bennington that have tested positive for PFOA.

So far, 227 wells in the area are contaminated with PFOA, which is a suspected cancer-causing chemical, and the state says it wants to extend nearby municipal water systems to the contaminated properties.

But now that the engineering studies are done, some big questions remain.

Bolles Brook spills out of the Green Mountain National Forest and its water flows into Bennington's filtration plant, which is about a mile away.

The plant is state-of-the-art, with computerized monitoring systems, and it operates at less than half of its capacity. So there's plenty of cold, clean water to supply the people in North Bennington and Bennnington who have PFOA in their private wells.

Plant superintendent Terry Morse says there's a reason why the water system isn't already serving the far reaches of Bennington and North Bennington.

"One of the reasons water mains haven't been extended into these areas is because, in general, they're not overly populated areas," Morse says. "They're rural areas where most of the lots are either undeveloped or they're very large lots for single residents."

Financially, it just doesn't make sense to lay miles of pipe for a few hundred customers.

But state and local officials say this is the best way of addressing the widespread water contamination.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Bennington water system has the capacity to serve all of the contaminated properties, but it's not yet clear who will pay for the water line extensions.

To make the extension even marginally sustainable, Morse says homes with PFOA, and even those without the chemical, will need to hook on to help cover maintenance costs.

"The bottom line is ... that if we're going to buy into this process, and we're going to buy into this project, for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of these lines, I think that we really need to more than encourage people to tie on if everyone's going to make this investment," he says.

 The investment in Bennington will be almost $14 million, and at this point it's not clear who will pay.

"If ... we're going to buy into this project, for the long-term maintenance and upkeep of these lines, I think that we really need to more than encourage people to tie on." - Terry Morse, Bennington Water System superintendent

And the Bennington system will only serve a portion of the contaminated properties. It would cost another $3 million to $4 million to reach the remaining properties from a second system in North Bennington.

Saint-Gobain, the company which owned the industrial site where the contamination is believed to have originated, has been paying for bottled water, water testing and carbon filter systems. But the company hasn't agreed to cover the municipal water line extensions.

The company did pay for the engineering studies, and Gov. Peter Shumlin says he'll meet with company officials to talk about the next step.

"They are not required to reimburse," Shumlin said. "That would be decided by a court of law if we came to a dispute about how we build this out. My hope is, before we all lawyer up, let's try to do what's right. And so far that's been working."

The Bennington Selectboard decides when and if the project will move forward.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The Bennington Selectboard will decide when and if the project will move forward.

Selectboard Chairman Thomas Jacobs says he's not eager to hold a bond vote, but at the same time, people are calling him about taking care of the situation.

He says the town's in a tough position.

"I don't see the town just deciding to go ahead and start construction in the fall or the spring without having some real firm groundwork done on whether we'll have a third party involved," Morse says. "But at the same time, we have these citizens that are concerned about the impact on their lifestyles and the values of their properties. They're all considerations we have to deal with, sooner rather than later."

Then there are the issues of laying pipes in wetlands and over streams, and getting all of the necessary permits and easements to make the project happen.

And the state is still testing wells, so there might be even more water lines — and costs — pinned to the project.

Engineers say construction could begin at the end of this year and, if that happens, work will likely run until the end of 2017.


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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