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

Confusion, Anxiety After Saint-Gobain Serves Court Summons To Bennington Residents

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Sandy Sumner holds the court summons he was served while standing in his door of his home in North Bennington. Sumner's well is contaminated with PFOA.

As part of its most recent lawsuit against the State of Vermont, Saint-Gobain sent out sheriff's deputies to serve court papers to 17 people who live near the company's former factory.

The company, which owned a North Bennington plant that is suspected of contaminating local drinking water with the chemical PFOA, says it was only following Vermont law in notifying interested parties about the lawsuit. The company is challenging the the state's permanent safe water standard for PFOA and a second chemical, PFOS.

Saint-Gobain says the Bennington residents who have been dealing with contaminated water are not part of the suit.

But an attorney representing some in the group wonders if it was a move to intimidate people.

And for those who've been living with the contaminated water, it was a reminder of just what they've had to deal with over the past year.

It's been about a year since Sandy Sumner found out that his water was contaminated with the industrial chemical PFOA.

He's tried to come to terms with the fact that his house has probably lost value, and that the chemical that's been detected in his blood could affect his health down the road.

But when a sheriff knocked on his door and told him that he was being sued by Saint-Gobain, it kind of knocked him out.

"It certainly sent me back," he says. "It certainly sort of took me back to when we first were notified that our water and soil was contaminated. And of course brought up all those initial anxieties that I've worked hard to put on the back burner."

About 270 private wells are contaminated with PFOA, a chemical that's been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol and thyroid issues.

The state says Saint-Gobain is responsible for the contamination, and the company is appealing Vermont's safe drinking water standard for PFOA, which is lower than the level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The court summons that was handed to Sumner was stark. The first line said, 'You are being sued,' and Saint-Gobain was listed as the Plaintiff.

Sumner says there had to have been a better way to do it.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Sandy Sumner has been drinking bottled water for almost a year since his well tested positive for the industrial chemical PFOA.

"Our lives have definitely been turned upside down by this," he says. "Our financial futures, and possibly our health futures, are unclear. And so I was angry that my understanding was I was being sued. And I couldn't get my head around it."

Mark Cheffo is an attorney representing Saint-Gobain.

He says the state sent Saint-Gobain a letter saying there was a list of local residents who wanted to know when a lawsuit was filed.

Cheffo says there was no other option and no other way to serve the notice of the company's appeal of Vermont's safe drinking water standard.

"This was required by the appellate rules," Cheffo says. "It says if there are people who might be interested in following this, or asserting their rights, or intervening, or getting involved, you have to tell them. And it's just part of due process."

Cheffo knows it can be disconcerting to have a sheriff show up to serve papers. And when a multinational company is at the top of the summons, he said, it's likely to raise some anxiety.

"I suppose we could have talked to the state and said, 'Is there something that we can do proactively to let people know?'" he says. "You know, hindsight is 20-20, maybe if we did it again we'd work cooperatively with the state to tell [people] this was coming so there'd be no surprises."

But Bennington-based attorney David Silver isn't buying it.

Silver is representing a group of people in Bennington in a class action suit against Saint-Gobain.

And he says there were other ways to let people know about the latest appeal.

"They could have just mailed it to them," says Silver. "They could have done that and that would be sufficient notice. It's hard for me to believe that the sophisticated attorneys that Saint-Gobain has retained didn't know that. It was either very careless or it was a deliberate attempt to intimidate the people of Bennington."

Silver says the people who received the court summons were those who have been in contact with state environmental officials, and who have spoken out against the company.

When the crisis in Bennington broke last year, the two sides worked closely together and Saint-Gobain spent millions for bottled water, water filter systems and engineering studies done for  the people with contaminated water.

But the relationship has soured, and with a $30 million water line extension still under debate, Saint-Gobain and the state of Vermont remain miles apart.

Correction 6:15 p.m. This story was corrected to accurately report what Saint-Gobain invested in the Bennington community.

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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