Community groups feel left out of EPA PFOA discussions

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WASHINGTON — Groups from communities impacted by a class of toxic chemicals say they have been left out of federal-level discussions about the chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency held a summit on PFAS, a class of substances used in firefighting foam, Teflon and more, in the capital this week with federal officials and representatives from dozens of states and tribes.

One group advocates say was underrepresented: members of communities impacted by contamination, like Bennington.

PFOA has been found in drinking water in the southern Vermont town, in nearby Hoosick Falls, New York, and in many other locations around the country.

The EPA has been under fire for restricting access to the event. Multiple journalists said they were refused entry. An Associated Press reporter was allegedly shoved as security removed her from the building.

Shaina Kasper of Toxics Action Center said there are also concerns about access for members of the public.

"This is an issue of transparency and accountability but also public health," Kasper said.

According to Kasper, two community group representatives from the region were invited to participate in the summit - one from New Hampshire, the other from near the Vermont border in New York.

However, she said, they were invited only days before the event took place.

Two officials from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources were among the attendees.

Kasper noted that one of the first speakers at the event was a representative from the American Chemistry Council. The EPA, she said, seems "disinterested in taking any action that is not preapproved by the chemical industry."

"The Pruitt EPA has shown that it's been trying to hinder efforts to protect the public," she said.

Last week, the administration came under fire for apparently blocking the release of a report on the health impacts of the chemicals.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon on community groups' involvement in the event.

David Bond, a Bennington College professor, said community members bring important insights to the table about the class of chemicals.

"Some of the most knowledgeable people about PFOA today are those people from communities impacted by it," Bond said.

People who live in regions that have managed contamination have experience with what strategies have worked and what haven't, he said — information that is "invaluable" to how the country responds.

"We need the federal government to take a leadership role here," Bond said.

However, Bond was critical of the federal agency under Pruitt's leadership.

"The Pruitt administration has been an ongoing experiment in environmental ungovernance," he said.

He said he is hopeful the EPA will follow up on work that has already been done documenting the impact of PFOA.

Pruitt plans to hold regional meetings on the chemicals, including one next month in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

"It's great they're going to come visit," Bond said. "I think that the communities deserve a seat at the table in DC on these conversations."

Vermont Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Peter Walke attended the summit.

Walke said he is optimistic about some of the goals EPA officials said they were working towards, including looking to list some chemicals in the family as hazardous substances, assessing whether standards for PFAS content in drinking water is appropriate, and evaluating cleanup methods.

However, he said he would have liked to have more representatives from areas dealing with contamination.

"I think it would have been very helpful to have more community groups there," Walke said.

Walke has concerns about the involvement of chemical companies in the federal response to the issue, including in kicking off the summit Tuesday. He noted that the rest of the conference involved more input from participants.

However, he welcomed the federal agencies' attempts to move forward on the issue.

"The states in general are glad to see that EPA is trying to catch up with where we all are," Walke said.

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