Legal summons a nasty shock to those involved

Our View

People in the Bennington area who commented on what the state should set as a safe level of PFOA in their drinking water got a nasty shock recently when they received court summonses from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics — seemingly telling them they were being sued by the international company.

They were not really being sued, merely notified of a suit the company is mounting against the state over the standard it ultimately set for PFOA. But even so the resulting debacle raised the levels of tension, confusion and mistrust in a situation already rife with all those elements and more.

When perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was discovered last year in drinking water wells around a former North Bennington factory, one now owned by Saint-Gobain, the state, as an emergency measure, set the limit at 20 parts per trillion and later made the standard a permanent one. As part of that process, those with affected wells were allowed to comment.

Saint-Gobain has appealed the state's 20 ppt standard, saying the limit set by Vermont isn't backed up by science. To notify the commenters of the suit, which is required, Saint-Gobain sent each a summons containing the phrase "you are being sued."

According to the company's lawyers, it was simply following instructions from the state, both in terms of sending out the summons and the the wording therein.

The state doesn't seem like it backs that explanation, as evidenced by an email sent to the 17 people receiving summonses by Matt Chapman, an attorney for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Saint-Gobain has apparently used a summons to notify you of its suit filed against the State, serving a copy of this complaint as a courtesy to interested persons who commented on the PFOA related changes to the Vermont Hazardous Waste and Groundwater Protection Rules ... We want to express our sincerest apologies for any confusion and distress that this may have caused. If you have questions you should feel free to reach out to me," reads the email in part.

It also made clear that Saint-Gobain was only suing the state, not the people summoned.

Few words can terrify regular people quite like "lawsuit." Fear of being sued influences the actions of not only common folk, but of governments, schools and medical providers. While we live in an extremely litigious society, many do not understand the ins and outs of the legal system, even on a basic level. We see this in nearly all levels of court, from criminal, to civil, to environmental.

Even quasi-legal proceedings, such as local zoning board hearings to the permitting process surrounding windmills and solar plants, routinely confound and frustrate people.

It's never wise to assume malicious intent when one hasn't ruled out simple negligence, incompetence, or misunderstanding. That Saint-Gobain may well have thought it was doing what the state wanted is fairly believable given the number of people involved in the matter and the complexity of the rules involved. If it had wanted to intimidate the people of North Bennington, it might have found a more "PR-friendly" way to go about it.

Making matters worse is that there's not a great deal of solid information surrounding levels of PFOA contamination. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says one thing, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation says another. Regular people are left wondering if they can drink their water, how much it will cost to make it safe, who will pay for it, and if their government can protect them.

Sadly, like many things in this world, the answer often is "who knows?"


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