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Saint-Gobain Report Says No Clear Evidence Links Company To PFOA In Second Bennington Area

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Bill Knight lives in Bennington and his water is contaminated with the chemical PFOA. A draft report says the contamination in his neighborhood cannot be linked to the company's work.

The company that reached a $20 million settlement with the state over PFOA contamination in one area of Bennington says it can't be linked to pollution in another, disputed, region of town.

Under the settlement, Saint-Gobain agreed to pay to extend municipal water lines to about half of the people in Bennington who have PFOA in their wells.

When the company signed off on the settlement it agreed to conduct a study of a second region in town.

In a just-released draft interim report, scientists who were hired by Saint-Gobain say there is not enough evidence to link the PFOA in the disputed area to the company.

The two areas are separated by a railroad track that runs through town, and Bill Knight lives within the disputed section, known as Area 2.

His water has levels of PFOA that the state says are unsafe for human consumption.

"Saint-Gobain is not taking responsibility for those of us who are east of the railroad tracks. But our wells are just as contaminated as anyone else so we feel like we should be just as justified in getting attached to city water, just as people on the west side." - Bill Knight, Bennington resident

"Saint-Gobain is not taking responsibility for those of us who are east of the railroad tracks," Knight says. "But our wells are just as contaminated as anyone else. And we're pretty sure that our wells were contaminated because of Saint-Gobain and the PFOA. So we  feel like we should be just as justified in getting attached  to city water, just as people on the west side."

Saint-Gobain paid for carbon filters which were installed in the homes that tested high for PFOA.

Knight says the filters affect his water pressure, and he's also growing tired of drinking bottled water.

"We just want to get back to where we had good, clean, safe drinking water," he says.

PFOA is a chemical that Saint-Gobain used at its Chemfab factories in Bennington. It's been linked to a number of adverse health effects and there are about 300 homes in the area that have unsafe levels in their drinking water.

Under the settlement with the state, Saint-Gobain only agreed to pay for those homes that are about a mile-and-a-half from the company's former factory, and the railroad track was used as a dividing line.

The new draft report is more than 5,000 pages long, and includes details from hundreds of soil borings, underground water tests and air circulation studies.

"It's a big report and there's a lot going on, so its keeping us busy," says Department of Environmental Conservation project manager John Schmeltzer.

He says state scientists and consultants are poring over the data.

The disputed area is near the Bennington landfill, a Superfund site that closed in 1987.

The Saint-Gobain report says PFOA might have leaked out of the landfill, and the authors write that it's impossible to definitively link the contamination to the Chemfab facilities.

Schmeltzer says it's too early to start asking direct questions about the report.

But he says the study probably won't convince the state that someone besides Saint-Gobain should pay for the waterline in the disputed area.

"We believe at this time that they should be paying for the  line on the east side as well as the west side," Schmeltzer says.

It will probably cost another $20 million to extend the municipal water into Knight's neighborhood and beyond.

So the state is eager to read through the report and begin discussions with the company over who will pay for the waterlines.

Department of Environmental Conservation attorney Jen Duggan says once the report is finalized the state will respond and open up a  new set of negotiations with the company.

"If the State and Saint-Gobain are unable to reach agreement, the State will use all authority provided by Vermont law to pursue long-term drinking water solutions for all impacted residents," she says.

There's also a class action suit building against Saint-Gobain, and environmental attorney Gary Davis says the people who live near Knight on the east side of the railroad tracks should have never been sectioned off into a separate area of consideration.

Davis says his group did its own study, which found that air emissions of PFOA can travel well into the disputed zone.

And he says according to the records  that are available, Saint-Gobain was the only one who might have dumped PFOA-tainted waste into the landfill.

"I think there's a fundamental disagreement here as to the extent  of the emissions from the former Chemfab facilities," Davis says. "Saint-Gobain is doing everything possible to try to cast doubt on the area of impact."

A spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain said  chemicals like PFOA "were regularly used by many industries and in many consumer products, and groundwater investigation activities within Area 2 are still ongoing."

She says a revised report will be released next month with more information regarding the groundwater conditions in Area 2.

Work on the waterline into the first zone has been stopped for the winter, but the state says the people there should have clean, safe drinking water before the end of 2018.


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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