NORTH BENNINGTON, Vt. — Above the Walloomsac River, where ramshackle farmhouses sit just downhill from tidy homes with organic gardens out back, the old ChemFab plant was, for many, a respected local employer from the days when this village’s prosperity depended on industry.
For others, it was an eyesore and a nuisance, its smokestacks choking their homes with an acrid smell that seemed to cause headaches, sore throats and nosebleeds. But since the plant shut down more than a dozen years ago, few had given a thought to its environmental legacy.
In recent weeks, however, several private wells near the ChemFab plant have tested positive for an industrial chemical that has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease and serious complications during pregnancy, making North Bennington — better known for its bed-and-breakfasts and Bennington College — the latest in a growing list of Northeastern communities unsettled by a contaminated-water scare.
It started across the New York border in the village of Hoosick Falls, where the discovery of the chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the public drinking water has prompted residents to rely on bottled water amid charges that the state took far too long to respond. The chemical was found in public wells in Petersburgh, New York, the site of a plastics factory south of Hoosick Falls.
And last week, as environmental officials in Vermont and New York mounted statewide searches for other potentially contaminated areas, officials in Merrimack, New Hampshire, home to yet another chemical plant, announced that the chemical had cropped up there, too.
“From an environmental perspective, we kind of fell asleep at the wheel when it came to those components,’’ said Kiah Morris, the Vermont state representative whose legislative district includes Bennington. “There’s things we didn’t know, and there’s things we hoped we wouldn’t find out.’’
The number of people found to be drinking water tainted by PFOA is almost certain to grow. PFOA was once used to manufacture a legion of modern conveniences including nonstick pans, microwaveable popcorn wrappers and Gore-Tex boots — practically anything that is nonstick, stain-resistant or water-repellent — but PFOA’s health effects and the way the chemical spreads are not well understood. But even as it continues to contaminate water across the country, scientists say, government agencies at all levels, from local health departments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have yet to grapple with the full extent of the problem or with what it will take to clean it up.
“I think when people look,’’ said Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, “they’re going to find it.’’
The State of Vermont is now sampling 185 private wells in North Bennington, all of which fall within a 1.5-mile radius of the ChemFab plant, which closed in 2002. Bottled water has been distributed. Carbon-filtration systems, an imperfect and temporary fix, have been installed on some wells.
“Every time I think about it, I just feel like crying,’’ said Virginia Barber, 64, who since 1977 has lived in a white house no bigger than a trailer at the end of Scarey Lane, overlooking the factory. Hers was one of the first few wells in the village to test positive for PFOA.
Barber, her husband and their two dogs are drinking bottled water; she is unsure whether she should bathe the dogs in it, too. She keeps her showers short. She does not know whether to rinse pasta in the well water. She keeps reminding herself that she cannot use the ice from the automatic ice-maker.
Her husband, David Barber, 67, worked at the plant for 21 years, coating fabrics in the Teflon material. He recalled seeing small specks of the material get stuck on the ends of co-workers’ cigarettes and turn to ash as the smokers inhaled that, too. Within a couple of hours, they would get chills and sweats, as if they were coming down with the flu.
“We were kind of young and foolish,’’ he said. “We never really talked about it; we never really thought too much about it. It paid good, and they treated us fairly well.’’
An analysis earlier this month by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that has urged the EPA to lower the level at which it says water with PFOA is safe to drink, found that the chemical had been detected in 103 water systems, serving nearly seven million people in 27 states. (That does not include smaller water systems like those of Hoosick Falls or Petersburgh, which were not covered under the agency’s testing program.)
The EPA does not have a formal regulatory standard for the chemical, relying instead on a provisional health advisory level for drinking water, which it has announced it will update this spring. Some states lack even that.
Trying to beat back criticism that New York State’s response in Hoosick Falls was, at best, blinkered — the state repeatedly said its water was safe last year before declaring it a Superfund site in January — New York officials have suggested that the fault lay with the absence of strong guidelines from the federal agency. Gov. Andrew Cuomo again called on the EPA to release a long-term advisory level for the chemical on Sunday, when he visited Hoosick Falls for the first time after its water was deemed unsafe.
“We’re going to continue to find situations like this all throughout the state, all throughout the country,’’ he said.
In Vermont, the Health Department did not issue a health advisory level for the chemical — at 20 parts per trillion, it is well below that of the federal guideline set for Hoosick Falls, which is 100 — until state environmental officials began testing wells in North Bennington last month. They, in turn, had become aware of the possibility of contamination there only after one resident, alarmed by the news from Hoosick Falls, contacted local elected officials.
Tests have shown that the public water supplies of both Bennington and North Bennington, which serve a vast majority of residents, are free of PFOA.
“We didn’t really know about it, we weren’t testing for it, but now we know about it, we’re testing for it; we’re starting to look at where else it may be,’’ said Chuck Schwer, the state environmental department’s director of waste management and prevention, who has begun identifying other industrial sites across the state that may need testing. “We’re still in the very early stages, but now that we know, it’s like, we can’t have another North Bennington situation catch us off guard.’’
There were some here who were concerned that the ChemFab plant was not following regulations, like Annette Griffith, 51, who worked there for five years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Griffith said she brought her concerns about smoke and workers’ health problems to managers several times, only to be ignored.
Now she wonders whether she should have been even more outspoken. She was eight months pregnant when she left ChemFab, and her son was born with learning disabilities.
“There’s no way they didn’t know,’’ Griffith said.
A spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, the company that owns the plants in Hoosick Falls and Merrimack, and took over the ChemFab plant in 2000, said she could not comment on “what happened before our tenure.’’ The spokeswoman, Dina Silver Pokedoff, said Saint-Gobain had offered to pay for bottled water and filtration systems for those affected.
When Andy Beckerman, 70, and Carol Poppe, 65, moved into their home near the ChemFab plant about 18 years ago, they noticed a nauseating odor seeping in at all hours, as if something sugary had burned in the oven. Their next-door neighbor, Sandy Sumner, 63, and his wife often woke up with sore throats, migraines and nosebleeds.
“Here we are, organic everything, and now we’re blasted with PFOA,’’ said Poppe, laughing ruefully at the thought of the organic soil they had brought in for their vegetable patch.
Many residents also worry about the values of their houses, which are likely to plummet with the mere mention of water contamination.
“We’re middle class; we don’t have a ton of change,’’ Sumner said. He said he and his wife were planning to use the proceeds from the house to retire. “But now,’’ he said, “we’re going to have to stay here until we can’t stay here anymore.’’
In the nearby rural village of Petersburgh, where Taconic Plastics’ plant on Coon Brook Road is by far the biggest employer, PFOA was found in public wells that serve dozens of families after Taconic notified New York officials that the plant’s water had tested positive for the chemical.
Taconic had found high levels of PFOA in its water a decade ago, officials said, and was apparently concerned enough to provide filtration systems and bottled water to homes by the plant. But though it informed the state in 2005, the discovery did not raise alarms at the state level until recently because PFOA was, and remains, an unregulated contaminant, state officials said.
Rory Lynch, whose private well in Petersburgh is being tested, said she had thought about leaving the home that has been hers since 1976. One option, she said, was to move near her son in Colorado.
Then came a caveat.
“I don’t know if they have PFOA, too,’’ she said.