Concerns expressed over PFOA deal

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BENNINGTON — Concerns about properties not scheduled to be connected to municipal water lines as part of a $20 million settlement over PFOA contamination were among those expressed in comments on an agreement between the state and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics.

Public comments on the state's partial settlement with Saint-Gobain to fund water line extensions to about half the properties with PFOA contamination did not, however, prompt officials to seek changes in the agreement posted in late July. The state Agency of Natural Resources has now asked that a consent order on the settlement be approved as submitted in Bennington Superior Court Civil Division.

During a 30-day comment period that ended Aug. 25, concerns were raised about aspects of the agreement by several residents and by one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in a private class-action suit against the company in U.S. District Court.

A summary of the comments was subsequently released, along with responses to each from Chuck Schwer, director of the Waste Management and Protection Division of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Leslie Vey, of North Bennington, and others who commented, voiced the concern that not all homes in the targeted first section of the contamination zone around former ChemFab Corp. factories will be connected to municipal water service.

In his response to Vey, Schwer said in part, "ANR went through an evaluation of each area to evaluate the appropriate remedy for that area."

In some cases, he said, it was determined that a point-of-entry treatment (POET) system or, in some cases, a newly drilled well, was the best solution to contamination — either option to be funded by the company. This is in light of "various water quality-related problems associated with long distribution lines would have adversely affected those drinking water users," he said.

During public information sessions on PFOA contamination surrounding the former ChemFab Corp. factories, state officials said that water quality at the farthest reach points of new water lines could be compromised because of stagnation and other factors.

The $20 million settlement covers extension of Bennington and North Bennington water lines to PFOA-contaminated properties in about half the contamination zone as identified by the state. Negotiations with Saint-Gobain — which purchased ChemFab in 2000 and closed the final local factory here in 2002 — are continuing toward a settlement covering a drinking water solution for a similar number of properties roughly east of Route 7A.

Schwer noted that the settlement announced in July also requires Saint-Gobain to continue to monitor wells not hooked up to municipal lines to ensure that wells showing less than 20 parts per trillion of PFOA — the state level for safe drinking water — do not show an increase. If that occurs, he said, the company would have to reevaluate all options for securing permanent access to clean drinking water, including a water line extension if new technology makes that feasible.

Emily Joselson, an attorney with Langrock Sperry & Wool, of Middlebury, one of four firms representing plaintiffs in the ongoing private lawsuit against Saint-Gobain, posted several comments.

Among issues she raised, Joselson expressed concerns that the state did not require Saint-Gobain to admit to violations as part of the consent order, about the costs of paying for municipal water once new lines are connected and the contaminated wells shut down, and about the possibility of lead contamination developing in older water pipes once municipal water is supplied to properties previously using well water.

"The state has a general practice in the context of enforcement proceedings of requiring responsible parties to admit to violations as part of the settlement," Schwer responded.

But he added, "While this is a general rule, the state frequently, in the context of settlements for release of a hazardous material, has not required an admission of liability; and the state has made a determination that the totality of this agreement, even without an admission of liability, is in the public interest."

He also noted in his response, as in those to other commenters: "Nothing in this consent order precludes a private homeowner from bringing a cause of action against Saint-Gobain for costs associated [with PFOA contamination]."

That also was part of his response concerning the water bills those to be connected to municipal water supplies will later have to pay.

In fact, the suit on behalf of homeowners is expected to address such costs and damages related to PFOA contamination of wells and soils, along with the costs of medical monitoring for diseases associated with PFOA exposure.

Concerning the possibility of lead contamination from old home piping, Schwer said that water sampling for lead will occur at homes or businesses as part of testing to ensure lead levels are below the action level of 15 parts per billion. He said this precaution is because older internal fixtures might contain a higher lead content and that could temporarily leach into the water with the change in water chemistry from well to municipal water.

Daniel Pratt, of Bennington expressed concerns over the cost of maintaining an on-site POET filtering system if a homeowner in the area to be connected to a water line chooses not to connect.

Schwer said the agreement does not cover those costs, adding that the expense would become the responsibility of the property owner unless they could successfully bring a private action against the company to recoup those costs.

In addition, Schwer said in his responses that Saint-Gobain would pay for connections to the new water lines initially but the consent order does not cover anyone who declines the connection at this time but decides later to ask for a connection.

Another commenter expressed concerns about having PFOA in a well but not at a level above 20 parts per trillion and the homeowner is not now receiving bottled water or a POET filtering system.

Schwer said that the consent order provides for long-term water sampling for any rise to the 20 ppt level, and requires that bottled water and a filtering system be immediately provided and that a permanent solution for drinking water be developed and funded by the company.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.




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