BENNINGTON — On Monday, Gov. Phil Scott helped celebrate the first new connection of a major water line extension project designed to address PFOA contamination of hundreds of local wells.
“Today, we are here to celebrate the progress we’ve made to connect residents to this municipal line,” the governor said, shortly before turning a valve that allowed clean water to flow to the home of David and Ellen Laplante of 495 Fairview St.
The couple’s well was among hundreds found in early 2016 to have PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination, which the state believes resulted from smoke stack emissions from former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington and North Bennington.
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the firm that acquired ChemFab in 2000 and soon after moved the operation to New Hampshire, agreed as part of an settlement with the state to provide $20 million for water line extensions to about 200 of the more than 300 properties in the identified contamination zone.
“We will not stop until all residents of these areas have clean, safe drinking water available to them,” Scott said, referring to ongoing negotiations with Saint-Gobain over the remaining properties, roughly west of Route 7A.
Officials said Monday that between 30 and 40 percent of the first phase water lines are in place as the construction season is winding down for the winter. In total, about 14 miles of new line connecting to municipal water systems in both the village and town will be installed by next fall.
The state Agency of Natural Resources will hold a community meeting here in January to provide residents with a report on the progress of construction work and the ongoing investigation and negotiations concerning the eastern portion of the contamination zone.
Peter Walke, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said Saint-Gobain has conducted additional environmental testing in that area of town and is expected to file a report to the agency soon, after which officials hope to reach another consent agreement for additional funding and more water line extensions.
“We expect to have the first round of data from Saint-Gobain by the end of the week,” Walke said. “And we will begin our review of that data.”
The company has questioned whether there could be other sources of PFOA contamination, particularly from a former Bennington landfill site. However, the state contends the PFOA spread from ChemFab stacks on Northside Drive and on Water Street in North Bennington during the manufacture of Teflon-coated fabric products, and that PFOA in the soil eventually worked into the water table.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan, whose staff has led talks resulting in a consent agreement with Saint-Gobain approved in Superior Court in October, praised the efforts of state officials, area lawmakers, local officials and residents for continuing to push for a permanent source of clean water.
Area lawmakers, Donovan said, “advocated for you; they were relentless and consistent — on one message that clean drinking water is a basic human right, and the people of Bennington County, the people of Vermont deserve it.”
The AG added, “We heard you, we responded, but this is but one first step and we have more work to do. We will continue to finish the job; we will come down here as often as it takes to finish the job, and we will hold everybody accountable until everybody in this county has access to clean drinking water.”
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, speaking for the county’s legislative delegation, praised its unity in responding to the the devastating news of polluted well water.
“I have to say that we may disagree on particular issues, but when we come together up in Montpelier, we always come together to represent the best interests of the communities that we represent,” Campion said.
Those gathered for the ceremonial event were symbolic of the cohesive response to the contamination, which was first confirmed through water testing in early 2016, Walke said.
“You have people from the town of Bennington, the village of North Bennington, the two engineering firms that represent them, Otter Creek and MSK. You have Schultz Construction [one of the contracting firms working on five separate water line extensions]. You have the team from ANR, and the team from the AG’s office — who from the moment we discovered PFOA in February 2016 were on the ground immediately, trying to discover what was going on and trying to figure out how to get people clean drinking water, both immediately and long-term. Today represents a huge step in that process.”
During the interim, Saint-Gobain has funded bottled water and on-site water filtering systems for the affected residents.
“I feel very lucky to be a Vermonter because the standards are so high,” said Ellen Laplante after the town water was flowing to her home.
The state’s drinking water standard was set last year at 20 parts per trillion of PFOA, one of the lowest levels in the country, and the settlement with Saint-Gobain factors in that standard throughout.
“This is a great day, and good for Bennington,” said David Laplante. “We were surprised, as the people of Bennington were, when we heard the news. But the state’s response was very quick. We’re just excited and pleased.”
Laplante said the home was supplied with bottled water and with a filtering system for the contaminated well, which will be discontinued. If he wanted to sell his property, he added, the filtering equipment could have become an issue for a potential buyer.
Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, one of several local lawmakers in attendance, said of the state’s response: “Relatively, it feels long, but this has been a short process in the scheme of things. We’re all very delighted. We have worked with all the agencies involved, and the delegation has not skipped a beat in regard to moving this forward.”
To applause, Scott opened the flow to the Laplante residence, and then the officials tromped to the kitchen for a toast with clean water drawn from the faucet.
Walke also addressed the issue of excess PFOA-contaminated soils being removed as part of the water line installations. He said that thus far all of the excess soil has been deposited at the construction sites or on sites in the contamination zone with the consent of property owners.
“The contractors have had great luck finding places to keep it local, putting it back in the trenches as much as possible, and if not finding people who are willing to [accept the soil as fill],” he said.
A proposal to deposit some of the excess soil along the Route 279 right-of-way was vigorously opposed by residents near the Austin Hill Road underpass. Thus far, that site hasn’t been needed, Walke said.
Use of the right-of-way, which also is within the zone of contamination, would require federal approval because of the federal funding received for the interstate highway project. A leg of the Bennington Bypass project, the road extends into New York state.