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As Talks Stall With Saint-Gobain, State Officials Consider Legislation To Expedite PFOA Fix

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The French company Saint-Gobain owned the Chemfab plant in North Bennington that contaminated groundwater with PFOA. Officials say they're ready to introduce legislation to address the water crisis.

Talks with the company that contaminated more than 250 private wells in Bennington have broken down. And state officials say they're ready to introduce legislation in Montpelier to address the water crisis in southwestern Vermont.

Audio for this story will be posted.

The French company Saint-Gobain owned the factory in North Bennington that released the chemical PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, into the environment.

Since the contamination was discovered in February, the company has spent millions of dollars on free bottled water, blood tests and carbon filter systems.

Explore all of VPR's coverage of the PFOA contamination in southwestern Vermont

But they're not yet willing to put up the $30 million needed to bring clean water, via municipal water line extensions, to the contaminated properties.

Bennington Sen. Brian Campion says he's working on a bill that would force Saint-Gobain to take responsibility for the water line project.

"Our goal through this is to hopefully bring some closure to this sooner rather than later,” Campion says. “I think one of our concerns is that this could go on and on and on, and we need it to happen much sooner, and as quickly as possible.”

"One of our concerns is that this could go on and on and on, and we need it to happen ... as quickly as possible." - Sen. Brian Campion

The state recently announced that it would pay $2 million for engineering plans for the water line extensions, and Campion says work should start in the spring.

Fellow Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says the bill he and Campion are working on would force Saint-Gobain to pay for the work.

"To me, it's a matter of who's going to pick up the tab,” Sears says. “I think we've all agreed that we have to do this, and it's time to hold the responsible party accountable, and if we can't do it through negotiations, we need to do it through legislation.”

The state may have to start construction on the water project before reaching a settlement with Saint-Gobain.

"It's time to hold the responsible party accountable, and if we can't do it through negotiations, we need to do it through legislation." - Sen. Dick Sears

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren says she's been talking with lawmakers about making sure there's a way to get the company to repay any state money used to get the project moving.

Schuren says the legislation is needed because currently the state doesn't have the authority to go back and recover capital expenditures needed for the water line from the company.

"And so one other piece that we're putting in place would potentially be this piece of legislation that would allow us to cost recover those funds should we even need to spend them,” Schuren says. “So it's just a little bit of an insurance policy. Hopefully Saint-Gobain will pay, and maybe we'll get to a deal, but if not we want to have a couple of pieces in place.”

Schuren says state officials will be sitting down with Saint-Gobain again soon to try to get the stalled talks moving again.

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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