Read the full article by Tiffany Tan (VTDigger)

“A plastics manufacturer accused of spewing chemical contaminants in Bennington has started the long-promised cleanup of its shuttered local factory.

A company hired by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation began the first phase of the cleanup last week, focused on removing materials with asbestos from the North Bennington facility, according to Richard Spiese, a project manager for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The core of the cleanup — removing the industrial chemical PFOA from designated buildings — is scheduled to start around the beginning of October, said Spiese, who is overseeing the state-mandated project. The work is expected to end in December, at the earliest.

Saint-Gobain took on the project under a 2019 settlement agreement with the state, after the multinational company sued Vermont over its PFOA- and PFOS-related drinking water standards. They are among a group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes.  

Saint-Gobain’s former factory in the village of North Bennington was once famous for producing Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics used on structures such as sports stadium domes. Area residents alleged that the factory and another defunct Saint-Gobain plant in Bennington, which were closed in 2002, had emitted PFOA through their smokestacks, thereby contaminating drinking water, groundwater and soil in the surrounding areas.

Saint-Gobain settled the class-action lawsuit for $34 million last year. The money included funds to pay eligible property owners affected by PFOA contamination and establish a medical program to screen for certain diseases among residents adversely exposed to PFOA.

In settling the case, Saint-Gobain denied the accusations and any wrongdoing.

The forthcoming PFOA cleanup at 1030 Water St. in North Bennington will involve scrubbing surfaces with soap and pressurized hot water, Spiese said. He said there is no existing guidance for industrial PFOA cleanups, so the state and Saint-Gobain had to extensively negotiate on standards for the project.

‘We’re actually doing it on visual performance,’ Spiese said. ‘How clean does it look?’

He said the state has hired a contractor to double-check the work of Saint-Gobain’s cleanup crew and send regular reports to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Issues that personnel on site can’t agree on, Spiese said, will be brought to his attention.

Cleanup at the Water Street facility was supposed to begin in 2020 but got derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Saint-Gobain had expected the work to finally begin this spring, after it had to change contractors on the project.

On Tuesday, some light industrial equipment was parked in front of the facility.

John Camelio, a North Bennington resident and beneficiary in the class-action suit, has been waiting years for the cleanup to happen. He said he saw this week’s activity as a step forward.

‘I look at it as a start, because my ultimate goal would be to see the building torn down,’ he said. ‘It’s a monument to the poison that was put into our community.’

Jim Sullivan, another village resident who served as spokesperson for the class-action suit plaintiffs, also believes the building complex should be removed because it represents a blight in the community. He also said he is not confident in the outcome of the ongoing cleanup.

‘That whole place was just imbued with emissions from the industrial processes that were going on in there, so I don’t know if I have a whole lot of faith in a visual assessment,’ Sullivan said, ‘and if it’s really gonna be a clean site.’

Solid waste generated during the cleanup is expected to be disposed of at a Michigan landfill that is federally permitted to handle hazardous waste, Saint-Gobain said in a written statement.

‘Waste transport and disposal will be conducted in accordance with local, state, and federal regulations,’ the company told VTDigger.

Spiese said dirty water generated during the cleanup will be treated before being discharged, but did not yet have the location detail. Saint-Gobain didn’t respond to a question about where the water would be dumped.”