hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2016


Something in the water

Concern grows along with list of towns contaminated by PFOA


George Bouret photo, concern grows along with the list of towns contaminated by PFOABy EVAN LAWRENCE
Contributing writer


Relying on bottled water for drinking and cooking is a new and unwelcome experience for Jim Sullivan.

Like the rest of his neighbors on a small street at the southeastern edge of North Bennington, Sullivan gets his water from a well.

“I had no concerns until this happened,” Sullivan said. “We were using the water straight from the tap. We had no clue.”

“This” was the discovery in March that the wells on his street are contaminated with PFOA, a synthetic chemical suspected of being carcinogenic at vanishingly small concentrations.
Sullivan, the executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, and his wife, Leslie, have lived in the house for eight years. Their three children, now college-aged and beyond, spent some of their teenage years there.

“I’m concerned about the health effects,” Sullivan said. “We just don’t know.”

North Bennington is now one of four area communities struggling with water contaminated by perfluorooctanoic acid, which in past decades was widely used in manufacturing nonstick coatings like Teflon and in a variety of other products.

Local concerns about PFOA in drinking water began in 2014 when private tests of the municipal water supply in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., turned up concentrations of the chemical that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s advisory limit of 400 parts per trillion for short-term exposure. Late last year, the EPA declared the village’s water unsafe for drinking or cooking, and local and state officials have since been scrambling to provide a supply of safe drinking water and to install a new filter system that would keep the chemical out of the village water lines.
The spotlight on Hoosick Falls prompted questions in other towns around the region, and since January, new evidence of PFOA contamination has turned up in water samples collected in three other area communities where current or former manufacturing plants used the chemical – in North Bennington, Pownal, and in Petersburgh, N.Y.

The contamination now has affected more than 4,000 municipal water customers in Hoosick Falls, about 450 water users in Pownal and about 70 in Petersburgh. In North Bennington, the municipal water system is fine, but tests have found contamination in the private wells of about 100 homeowners outside the system’s service area.


George Bouret photo, stockpiled waterWidely used chemical
PFOA was invented in 1947. Although its use has been phased out in the United States in the past decade, for much of the late 20th century it was used in the manufacture of products ranging from nonstick pans to stain-proof fabrics and heat-resistant wiring.

At room temperature, PFOA is a solid that dissolves easily in water.

“Chemically speaking, it’s a surfactant,” said Janet Foley, a chemistry professor at Bennington College. “It allowed other chemicals to adhere to a surface.”

Once the coating was in place, the PFOA was removed with water or heat.
“It had a huge variety of applications,” Foley said. “It’s very stable and persistent in the environment. It’s not broken down easily.”

Because of its many industrial uses and its persistence, PFOA is widely distributed in the environment. Studies show most Americans carry it in their blood at very low levels. However, its entry into the environment was almost entirely through industrial facilities; people didn’t have the chemical in their homes.

The health effects of PFOA have been poorly studied, but surveys of people in industrial areas of the Ohio River valley link it to kidney and testicular cancer, heart and thyroid disease, and diabetes, among other illnesses. Some researchers believe that the EPA’s 400-ppt advisory limit, which is not legally enforceable, is much too high, and the agency recently adopted a lower, 100-ppt advisory limit for long-term exposure. Vermont has set its own safe drinking water limit for PFOA at just 20 ppt.

Environmental groups have called on the EPA to adopt mandatory safety limits for PFOA, as it has for dozens of other contaminants. The agency says it is considering that but must first complete a lengthy testing and evaluation process required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
One part per trillion is equivalent to less than a teaspoonful spread through 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But experts say precise tests can still accurately measure something that dilute.
“The EPA has certified testing methods and laboratories,” said David Bond, associate director of Bennington College’s Center for Advancement of Public Action. “It seems to be fairly reliable.”
However, few labs are certified for work involving this level of precision. State officials in Vermont have been sending well water samples from North Bennington to a laboratory in Wisconsin at a cost of $350 per test.


Superfund designation
In Hoosick Falls, the highest concentration of PFOA in groundwater was found under a factory operated by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, a subsidiary of a French construction materials company. Although Saint-Gobain has not used PFOA at the plant, a predecessor company did. Saint-Gobain began providing free bottled water for village residents late last year.

Granular activated carbon filters are effective at removing PFOA from water. In Hoosick Falls, Saint-Gobain paid for a temporary filter installed in February at the village water treatment plant and for individual filters for households with contaminated wells outside the village.

As of late March, state-supervised contractors had installed 441 filters at homes, and another 300 requests were pending. Saint-Gobain is also financing a permanent filter for the village system, with installation expected to be complete by October.

The state Department of Health is monitoring Hoosick Falls residents for exposure to PFOA. New York has declared Saint-Gobain’s two plants in the village a state Superfund site, and listing as a federal Superfund site is under review.


Industrial legacy
In North Bennington, the PFOA contamination came to light when a concerned resident, aware that a long-closed factory there had used PFOA, contacted Vermont state officials for help.
The defunct business, known as Chem-Fab, applied Teflon coatings to fiberglass fabrics. It opened in the late 1960s at a site on Northside Drive in Bennington, and in 1970 it moved about two miles to a row of factory buildings along Paran Creek in North Bennington. Saint-Gobain bought the company in 2000 and shut it down in 2002, transferring operations to another plant in New Hampshire. Saint-Gobain still owns the empty factory building.

Most of the village of North Bennington is on a municipal water system that draws from a source some miles away. State tests show that system --and Bennington’s municipal water supply -- are safe. But many people live beyond the systems’ service area, including dozens of households just east of the former Chem-Fab plant. Tests of many of those wells in recent weeks showed PFOA at levels well above the state’s 20 ppt limit.

With Saint-Gobain paying, the state has sampled wells within a 1.5-mile radius of the former plant, discovering clusters of contamination. Testing recently was expanded to three small areas just beyond that circle. As in Hoosick Falls and the surrounding town of Hoosick, Saint-Gobain is covering the costs of bottled water and filter systems.

“Every well within 1.5 miles of the suspected source has been tested,” said Matthew Patterson, the chairman of the North Bennington Board of Trustees. “More than 100 were positive to some degree. Filters are already being installed, but that’s considered a temporary solution. We want to get municipal water where we can as soon as possible.”

Engineers for the village water department and Saint-Gobain are looking for ways to increase the capacity of the municipal water system.

“They’ll present it to the village board, and we’ll have to decide whether it’s feasible,” Patterson said. “The village water is fine.”

Although state and local officials have acted quickly in North Bennington to provide people with safe drinking water, Patterson said there’s still a lot of public concern about the issue.
“People are worried about the loss of their property value or people being discouraged from moving to North Bennington,” he said.

Many of those affected live outside the village in the town of Bennington.

“Folks where wells have tested positive are very concerned,” said Town Manager Stuart Hurd. “Others are concerned for their neighbors and the negative connotations. … It’s just not good news.”

North Bennington’s water system “is already at its maximum,” Hurd said. The town is looking at whether Bennington’s system could be extended to more customers. Some outlying homes might be best served by filters, and others could perhaps tap into deeper, uncontaminated water if their wells were redrilled, Hurd said.

Halting exposure to the contamination, he suggested, is the key to limiting the possibility of health effects.

“There’s not a lot known about what PFOA might do to humans or animals,” Hurd said. “The science just isn’t there. But we know that it leaves the system over two to four years once the source is removed. That in itself should be good for people.”


Unregulated chemical, limited testing
In Pownal, the next town south of Bennington, a number of factories and mills once operated in the valley of the Hoosic River, which flows through town on its way west from the Berkshires toward Hoosick Falls. One company, Warren Wire, is known to have produced Teflon-coated wire before it closed in 1988. A local plastics manufacturer, Mack Molding, bought the building and used it briefly for assembly and storage.

The Pownal municipal water system has a well about 1,000 feet from the site. State tests in March showed PFOA in the water at just over Vermont’s advisory level of 20 ppt. Mack Molding, which still owns the building, agreed to provide bottled water for residents for two weeks while officials decide what to do.

State officials have said they plan to do more tests in Pownal but don’t expect to find widespread contamination.

Vermont Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said the state hasn’t found PFOA contamination anywhere beyond Pownal and North Bennington. But there hasn’t been an occasion to test in many smaller communities.

The state tested for PFOA in its 10 biggest municipal water systems between 2013 and 2015 and found no contamination. Tests in the two local communities were conducted only after specific concerns were raised.

In North Bennington, “we don’t know how the chemical was spread,” Schuren said. “The levels are generally consistent with industrial contamination.”

Given that the contamination seems to cover a fairly wide area, Schuren said the state suspects PFOA was spread through airborne dispersal and illegal dumping as well as releases at the plant.

Because PFOA isn’t regulated, the state has no record of where, when, or how it was used or disposed of, Schuren said. The state has requested information from Saint-Gobain, which inherited Chem-Fab’s records when it bought the company.

“They have 701 boxes of records to go through,” she said. “We look forward to seeing it.”
Her agency “is really early in the process,” Schuren said. “We’re still taking water and soil samples. We’ll review the data as it comes in.”

The state Department of Health and federal Centers for Disease Control will start testing residents’ blood this month, she said. A review of cancer cases in the North Bennington area has found no unusual clusters.


‘Don’t worry about it’
In Petersburgh, N.Y., the next town south of Hoosick, officials at a local plastics plant knew there was PFOA in the groundwater as early as 2003, town Supervisor Peter Schaaphok said.
“They went to the EPA, and [the EPA] said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Schaaphok said. “If anyone has dropped the ball on this, it’s the federal EPA.”

The Petersburgh plant, Taconic Plastics, specializes in coating fabrics with Teflon. The town has a small municipal well system. When the situation in Hoosick Falls made the news, Schaaphok visited Taconic Plastics.

“They were worried too,” he recalled.
Tests on the town water system showed one of its four wells was just over the 400-ppt federal advisory limit. Taconic Plastics agreed to pay for filtration of the municipal water and for bottled water in the meantime.

“We’re having our system reviewed by an engineering firm,” Schaaphok said. “We need to gather all the information. The first step is to filter.”

The state is testing other wells in the town of 1,500 people, but levels have generally been low to nondetectable, Schaaphok said.

“Most people are taking it in stride,” he said. “A few are very concerned and upset.”
In recent weeks, he said, the town board hasn’t had much chance to work on anything else.
“It’s sucking all the air out of the room,” Schaaphok said.


Searching for answers
PFOA has been under investigation since the 1990s for its possible health hazards.
“There’s a significant body of knowledge but a scarcity of conclusions,” said Bond, of Bennington College’s Center for Advancement of Public Action.

Foley, the chemistry professor, said a lot of questions still need answers.
“There are contradictions in the literature,” she said. “It seems to have different effects in rodents and humans. What is the mechanism by which the chemical might be causing harm?”

To begin to answer some of those questions, Bond, Foley and Bennington College earth science professor Tim Schroeder will teach a six-week course at the college this spring and again in the fall on PFOA contamination. Funding for the course will come from a grant of nearly $90,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response program.

The class came about because some of the college’s faculty and staff live in the Hoosick Falls area.
“We started tracking it seriously in November and December,” Bond said. “The issue is bigger and more complex than we anticipated.”

The course is open to Bennington College students, faculty and staff. A science background is not required.

“We want to give people tools,” Foley said. “How do you read the literature, analyze data, and make decisions? We believe students will come away with a handle on how to deal with these questions.”

The goal is to create a teaching module on PFOA that can be incorporated into other classes at the college or be offered through high schools and in other communities affected by groundwater contamination.

“We want to prepare people to be better citizens,” Bond said.
Part of the foundation grant will pay for testing water and soil samples the students will collect.
“Our research will be separate from the state investigation,” Bond said. The state’s focus is on discovering the boundaries of the contamination and ensuring that everyone has safe water.
“We want to get a broader picture of how the chemical is moving,” Bond said. “How is it getting into wells and soil?”

The Vermont DEC has posted a map of test results in the North Bennington area at www.anr.statew.vt.us/dec/PFOA.htm. For anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the topography, the map is startling. The area is full of ledge, and water doesn’t usually flow uphill, but many of the affected wells are upstream from the former plant or high on hillsides. How did the PFOA get there?

“I’ve been scratching my head over those maps,” said Schroeder, the earth science professor. “The groundwater may be flowing in directions we don’t expect.”

Some PFOA may have gone up a smokestack, or there may have been illegal dumping, he said.
“We’re going to need to do a lot more research,” Schroeder said.