Vermont officials decry EPA effort to suppress PFOA/PFAS study

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BENNINGTON — Vermont officials reacted strongly Tuesday to a report the federal Environmental Protection Agency under controversial Administrator Scott Pruitt tried to suppress a public health study on PFOA/PFOS contamination.

Politico reported that emails had revealed an effort to prevent publication of the study after a Trump administration aide warned that would result in a "public relations nightmare."

"I am outraged, but not surprised, that Scott Pruitt's anti-science EPA is suppressing research that would shed light on the health threats posed by PFOA contamination of the water supply," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. "Last year, I visited with homeowners in Bennington whose water was rendered undrinkable due to PFOA contamination. They have a right to see this information, which was gathered by federal employees and paid for with taxpayer funds. EPA should immediately make it available to the public and end its practice of choosing polluters over the public's right to know."

While the Bennington area, nearby Hoosick, N.Y., and numerous other regions of the country have discovered PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) in drinking water — resulting primarily from industrial operations involving Teflon — the PFOS once used in firefighting foam also has emerged as an environmental threat, particularly around air bases.

"My opinion of this White House and of EPA leadership, already quite low, hits rock bottom when I see them block the release of a scientific report meant to protect nursing mothers and pregnant women from toxic exposure, because they believe it will cause a `public relations nightmare' or concern from the public and Congress," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in an email. "The anti-science know-nothingism of this administration causes real harm to real people, including Vermonters. It's cynical; it's playing with people's lives, and it's wrong."

The senator is expected to mention the PFOA/PFOS report in his opening statement during an Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday with Pruitt.

All three members of Vermont's delegation have called on Pruitt to step down, VTDigger reported last month.

"We at the Agency of Natural Resources were dismayed to read this while the EPA has invited all the states to send representatives to a summit meeting to address these concerns," said ANR Deputy Secretary Peter Walke. "It was incredibly disappointing."

Walke and Chuck Schwer, director of the state Waste Management and Prevention Division, will represent Vermont at the meeting May 22-23 in Washington, when the widespread environmental and public health impacts of PFOA, PFOS and related chemicals will be discussed.

Regardless of the EPA's role in addressing PFOA, Vermont "has been working with our state partners in the region and the nation to learn what we can about these issues," Walke said, adding, "Thankfully, there are still a lot of scientists working at the EPA to better understand this, and hopefully the science will prevail."

Vermont Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who has been active in pushing for a strong response to the pollution of hundreds of wells around former ChemFab Corp. factories here, also lives in the local contamination zone.

"It is discouraging that the federal government chooses to protect the polluter rather than those that have been harmed," Sears said. "For those same reasons, I'm hopeful that Governor [Phil] Scott will support S.197, and not veto it as industry groups have been urging."

Among several legislative initiatives that stemmed from discovery of PFOA in the Bennington area two years ago, S.197 would make it easier for residents exposed to hazardous chemicals to seek funding from companies for ongoing medical monitoring for illnesses associated with the pollutant.

PFOA exposure has been associated through studies with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, said Tuesday: "Once the immensity of the problem and real challenge of addressing PFOA came into the focus, Pruitt's team seems to have taken off for the well-heeled hills of their corporate sponsors. And once again the core commitments of the Pruitt's reign at the EPA are revealed: a disastrous experiment in environmental un-governance."

Bond added, "These problems are not going away. We need environmental leadership up to the task of the challenge."

Since the discovery of PFOA in water supplies in Hoosick and Bennington, CAPA and the college have sponsored the ongoing Understanding PFOA project and hosted numerous updates on responses to the contamination.

Judith Enck, the former EPA Region 2 administrator who helped expose the extent of the PFOA problem in Hoosick Falls, said, "It is imperative that ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), the nation's federal environmental health agency, release an uncensored version of their report that addresses health risks from exposure to PFOA and PFOS. This is critically important health issue that should be free of any political interference."

Enck, a frequent critic of the EPA under Pruitt and the Trump administration, also was quoted in the Politico article by Annie Snider.

Lora Block, of Bennington, one of the homeowners whose well was contaminated by PFOA, said, "This anti-scientific reaction from the White House and the EPA is very upsetting but not surprising. It's business as usual for this administration."

She added, "This means we have to rely more on the state of Vermont to protect our health and water supply since the federal government is completely abdicating its responsibilities and even its interest in finding out what's happening with contamination and pollution and the health impacts."

Asked to respond to the controversy, Pruitt's chief of staff Ryan Jackson referred in an email to the upcoming summit on PFOA/PFOS in Washington, saying, "EPA is eager to participate in and contribute to a coordinated approach so each federal stakeholder ... is fully informed on what the other stakeholders' concerns, roles, and expertise can contribute, and to ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and congressional constituents and partners."

Jackson said the summit will include a series of panels and sessions to gather information "from a variety of stakeholders most importantly including state government stakeholders so that we can determine the best next steps to be most responsive.

VTDigger Washington correspondent Elizabeth Hewitt contributed to this article.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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