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Saint-Gobain Backs Away From Taking Responsibility For PFOA Contamination

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Saint-Gobain owned the Chemfab plant in North Bennington, but the company says the state can't prove the PFOA contamination in the area started at the plant.

The president of Saint-Gobain says his company might not be responsible for the water contamination in Bennington County.

The state wants Saint-Gobain to fund a $30 million water project in Bennington, but the company's latest communication hints ata long and expensive court battle over who will pay for the water line extension.

About 270 private wells in Bennington are contaminated with the industrial chemical PFOA, and the state says the North Bennington Chemfab factory that was owned by Saint-Gobain is the source of the pollution.

But in a sharply worded letter sent to the state last week, Saint-Gobain says much more work needs to be done before pinning the water contamination on the company.

In the letter, sent to Governor-Elect Phil Scott and Governor Shumlin, company president and CEO Thomas Kinsky says it's "premature for the state of Vermont to say Saint-Gobain is responsible for the cleanup of this contamination and other actions necessary to protect public health and the environment."

Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Alyssa Schuren says the letter came as a surprise as the two sides try to reach an agreement over who will pay for a water line extension project.

"We were certainly disappointed to see a letter like that coming from Saint-Gobain," Schuren said.

"[It's] premature for the state of Vermont to say Saint-Gobain is responsible for the cleanup of this contamination and other actions necessary to protect public health and the environment." — Thomas Kinsky, Saint-Gobain President and CEO

PFOA was used to weatherproof fabric at the North Bennington Chemfab plant. But in his letter, Kinsky points out that the factory closed down in 2002, and he says "the investigation is on-going and other potential sources of PFOA have not been evaluated by the Agency of Natural Resources."

Schuren says she's not buying it.

"We believe Saint-Gobain is the responsible party," she says. "We're going through a process right now which is indicating that, and we're not second-guessing that."

A Saint-Gobain spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

PFOA has been linked to a number of health effects, but in his letter Kinsky says there are no clear scientific studies that prove the chemical is dangerous to human health.

Since the chemical was detected in Bennington, Saint-Gobain has been working with the state to make sure people have clean drinking water. The company paid for carbon filters, which remove PFOA, but the state wants municipal water lines extended to the homes to protect property values and ensure a long term solution.

In his letter, Kinsky says the carbon filters are an effective permanent remedy. The state is trying to reach a settlement with the company over who should pay for the water lines.

Kinsky says the company will reach out to continue talks with the Scott administration.

"Although we are disappointed in the letter from St. Gobain, having the company reaffirm its commitment to work with the state on a solution, was welcome," Scott said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to meeting with St. Gobain soon to move towards a permanent solution for Bennington County residents."

Updated 10:47 p.m. This story was updated with a comment by Governor-Elect Phil Scott.

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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