NORTH BENNINGTON, Vt. (NEWS10) – The chemical PFOA has been found in the water in multiple Capital Region communities, including North Bennington.
“It was smoke filled,” Annette Griffith said. “In a blue haze you worked.”
In 1987, Griffith was a young girl in her 20s. Breathing in heavy, blue smoke is what she remembers about her time making Teflon-coated fabrics at the old plant in North Bennington. But there’s more to why she will never forget being one of its factory workers.
“On the warning labels, on every barrel of dispersion that we received from DuPont, stated in any heat application, any and all fumes must be completely exhausted,” she said.
But Griffith said the smoke wasn’t completely exhausted, and employees didn’t wear masks.
Griffith said she eventually became the Chair of Health and Safety.
“That particular year, we had five heart attacks and two of which died,” she said. “And then another younger man in his thirties passed away of cancer. So I started digging a little deeper in what we were using.”
She said some workers complained about the smoke and feeling sick.
“You know, every time you blew your nose there was blood in it,” she said.
But Griffith said the complaints fell on deaf ears.
“Once I brought up a complaint in the meetings, and you know, I would go back and report to that person,” she said. “It would go nowhere.”
David Barber still lives near the old plant that sits near the Walloomsac River. He recalled the blue haze and working directly with toxic chemicals.
“They actually told us don’t worry about; nothing will bother you,” he said. “It’s like we put our arms right up to our armpits in the wet Teflon. You know, it was just like fat free milk. It was just like a watery substance, and you know, they said, ‘Don’t worry.’”
The mix contained the hazardous chemical PFOA. Now, Griffith and Barber wonder how did it poison the drinking water for many with private wells in the area.
“They had a drain in the floor, which they would squeegee anything down the floor or into the drain,” Griffith said. “Personally, I think they need to look under that building.”
After reading through dozens of pages of Vermont state documents, NEWS10 ABC reporter Lindsay Nielsen found that Griffith wasn’t the only one making accusations. There was a long history of grievances made by those living nearby.
Around 30 complaints were filed between 1975 and 1997 about the odor and smoke coming from the plant.
“That just stunk so bad,” Barber said. “It smelt like hair burning or bodies even.”
“So I said, ‘So if it’s not safe for the environment, how is it safe for us?’” Griffith asked.
After further checking documents, Lindsay found that at one time, two enforcement actions were filed by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation against ChemFab. An odor abatement plan was developed, and the company later installed pollution control measures.
“They’d pay out fines like it was handing candy to the kids,” Griffith said. “And that’s disgusting.”
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics acquired the factory in 2000 and shut it down in 2002. They are now paying for bottled water for people in North Bennington as well as filtration systems.
Barber was the first person in North Bennington to have a filtration system installed. For him, the pain now is those he’s lost: friends he worked with and his daughter who had cancer.
“I always figured don’t worry about the water,” he said. “Working there would have killed me.”
Griffith has been diagnosed with a multitude of health issues. Her service dog Lydia acts as a comfort. She, too, wonders if some of her health issues could be related to PFOA or other toxic chemicals she worked with decades ago – back when she was the picture of health.
“It makes you angry when they knew,” she said. “It was all about money. It was all about the money.”
NEWS10 reached out to Saint-Gobain to talk about the accusations, but the company declined an on camera interview. A company spokesperson said the following:
Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics cannot speak to what happened before our tenure. When we acquire a company, we strive to implement Saint-Gobain’s environmental protocols and practices to ensure compliance with local and federal standards.