By Sharon Franklin

Elizabeth Gribkoff of the Vermont Digger recently reported in her article Years after discovery, PFOA looms over Bennington residents, that individuals such as Sandy Sumner and his wife who live in North Bennington, Vermont have their lives permanently altered by contamination from the former ChemFab plant, a Teflon coating plant. The Sumners use to have a large vegetable patch in front of their house, but they are now afraid to eat anything grown on their property because the soil and groundwater is contaminated with chemicals that are very harmful.  When the plant was operational, Sumner and neighbors complained to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the factory management about the acrid emissions from the smokestacks.  Sumner states “My wife and I, we were constantly sick,” “We couldn’t keep our windows and doors open. We got headaches, migraines, sore throats, nosebleeds.”  When the plant closed in 2002, the Sumners found out from the state that their drinking water well was contaminated with 580 parts per trillion of Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — more than 29 times higher than the Vermont drinking water standard.

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In April, 2019 the state of Vermont reached a final agreement with Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the current owner of the ChemFab factory.   As stated in the agreement Under this final settlement, … Saint-Gobain will directly fund a significant portion of the waterline extensions and be responsible for long-term monitoring, the drilling of replacement wells, and the long-term operation and maintenance of in-home treatment systems. Waterline work in the East Side of the Town of Bennington is estimated at $20 to $25 million. Pending final budget approval, the State has agreed to commit $4.7 million to extend waterlines to the maximum extent feasible.”

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In the Fall of 2018, Water-line extensions were completed at roughly 200 houses on the western side of the contaminated area, including the Sumners’ home.  Construction on the second phase of water line extensions in Bennington has begun, but many homes won’t be connected until 2020.  However, the Bennington residents like the Sumners impacted by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination are still dealing with potential long-term health impacts, costs of water bills and resignation that their properties will be indefinitely contaminated.

Some good news for the Sumners came on August 27, 2019.  The lawsuit he and his wife with eight other residents filed against Saint-Gobain, seeking to make the company pay for property damages and long-term medical monitoring for PFOA-related illnesses, took a step forward, when a federal judge allowed the case to advance as a class action.  

Sandy Sumner says “We’re not happy to be involved in the class action.”. “It’s stressful. But I wouldn’t shy away from it — it’s too important.”   He hopes the lawsuit will help pressure chemical companies to prevent contamination like this from occurring. “Because they’re not going to do it on their own,”.

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Jim Sullivan, one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against St. Gobain Performance Plastics,  says “The airborne PFOA contamination in Bennington differs from, say, an industrial spill, where the focus is on cleaning up a particular site,  “But in this case, the contaminated site is right here, we’re living on it,” he said. “And everybody who’s had their property contaminated is living on the contaminated site.

Sitting in the living room of his home, Sumner said the impact of the PFOA contamination on the property value remains a “question mark.” As the house is his family’s nest egg, he hopes they can get a good price for it when they eventually go to sell it. “At the same time, anyone who wants to buy this house, I would make damn sure that they knew that even though those flower beds are beautiful, that the soil and groundwater is contaminated”. “And, it will be while you’re living here.”

Photos by: Mike Dougherty/VTDigger