The Challenge Of Ensuring Safe Drinking Water In North Bennington, Now And Long-Term
As the state zeroes in on the extent of the PFOA contamination in North Bennington, there are short and long term challenges to making sure people have clean water to drink.
There are more than 100 homeowners in North Bennington who have new carbon filters on their water systems because their water has elevated levels of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen that state officials say most likely was released from the former Chemfab plant.
The filters remove the PFOA, and provide safe water, but they cut down on the water pressure and are expensive to maintain. So they're considered a short term fix.
And for the long term, state and local officials hope to extend nearby municipal water lines to the contaminated homes, but that will likely take a year or more to complete.
Wayne Kachmar's well tested positive for PFOA, and he has one of the new carbon filters on his water system.
Kachmar has small farm in North Bennington. He uses a lot of water, and since the PFOA test came back positive he's been giving his horses bottled water.
"They drink between 8 and 10 gallons a day each, so between them that's between 15 to 20 gallons of water a day," he says. "Right now I've been running up to the North Bennington Variety Store. And I'm getting my exercise hefting those 5-gallon bottles. It's a pain in the neck right now. But we'll live with it."
And living with the carbon filter system isn't going to be easy either. Even though he can't drink the filtered water yet, Kachmar has been using the water around his house.
And he says there's been a learning curve.
"One of the issues is it reduces the volume of water significantly," he says. "The most important thing I learned is I was outside watering the horses at the same time that my wife was upstairs taking a shower. That was not a good combination."
"[Carbon filters] reduce the volume of water significantly ... I was outside watering the horses at the same time that my wife was upstairs taking a shower. That was not a good combination." - Wayne Kachmar, North Bennington resident
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren says the carbon filters were installed to address the water contamination in the fastest way possible.
It will likely take a year or more to extend water lines out to the houses with contaminated wells.
Schuren says the next step will be an engineering study to look at how the municipal systems in both Bennington and North Bennington can serve the scattered properties.
"The community deserves a long-term clean water source," Schuren says. "We know that the municipal source is clean in North Bennington and Bennington, and we would like to make sure those people have long-term access to clean water. That's going to mean municipal line extension in the long term."
But that long-term plan is expected to cost between $7 million and $10 million, and no one is ready to commit to that kind of money.
"The community deserves a long-term clean water source ... That's going to mean municipal line extension." - Alyssa Schuren, DEC commissioner
Saint-Gobain ran the Chemfab factory in North Bennington until it closed in 2002, and the company's been paying for bottled water, water tests and the carbon filter systems.
The state says that bill will top $4 million, and talks between the two sides to date have been very good.
But Julia DiCorleto, the general manager for foams and tapes at Saint-Gobain, says the company is not ready to write a $10 million check for the water system extension.
"You know, I think it's early to define what the best long-term solution is," DiCorleto says. "Right now the investigation is going on. We're certainly not going anywhere, we're working closely together and I think we have to map out what those steps are in due time when we learn more."
And regardless of who pays for it, there will be a number of hurdles to get over before those first drops of clean water reach any of the contaminated properties.
There's plenty of capacity in the Bennington system, but the North Bennington system is much smaller and it's not clear just how far that water system can be pushed.
There will also likely be secluded homes that are simply out of reach of either system.
The state will have to work with those homeowners to come up with solutions, which could include more robust – and expensive – filtration systems, or digging deeper wells.
And then there's the challenge of selling the idea to people such as Ed Loveland, who has a well, and who's lived a long time without paying water bills.
Loveland's not sure about hooking on to the municipal system. He's 77, and he says the PFOA hasn't killed him yet and he likes his water just fine.
"[My] wife won't hook on unless it's mandatory because she don't like the water," Loveland says. "If this water right now tastes as good as the water that's in that cooler, I wouldn't hook on the North Bennington water anyhow."
And that could pose a problem for the other water users who will have to support the system, regardless of who ultimately pays to lay the new pipe.
Bennington town manager Stuart Hurd says there are likely other independent Vermonters living off a private well who might be less than excited to pay for municipally-treated water.
In most urban and suburban communities, hooking on to the water system is not an option.
Hurd says rural Vermont is another story.
"Here in Vermont, we haven't forced people to sign on to the water system," Hurd says. "That's one of the issues I think the select board has to think about when we start, when we prepare to do this. We have to understand what the willingness is of the people who are out there. I mean, people who have a good well may not want to connect."
In the meantime, another 30 carbon filters are being installed in the next week or so.
And the state is still testing wells – and waiting on the last round of water tests – to see if there are even more contaminated homes to serve.