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Environmentalists say they found troubling levels of PFAS chemicals in the Winooski River. State officials challenge their results

A river pools along a rocky bank to form the Salmon Hole fishing area along the Winooski River, with autumn trees in the background.
Matthew Smith
/
VPR
The Salmon Hole area of the Winooski River. It, along with the Gilbrook Reservoir, were among the areas tested for PFAS chemicals by the activist group Vermont PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition.

An environmental advocacy group decided to test the Winooski River for PFAS chemicals, and says it found elevated levels of the cancer-causing chemicals in a popular fishing hole and reservoir. But state environmental officials take issue with those results.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Seven Days reporter Kevin McCallum about his reporting on the Vermont PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition, the group which did the PFAS testing in his story, Volunteer Group Finds PFAS in Water Samples From Winooski River. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: I haven't heard of this group. Are they a legitimate environmental advocacy group?

Kevin McCallum: Well, they are, but they are new to the scene. I hadn't heard of them, either, before they released the results of their tests. But they are made up of folks who've been longtime water quality advocates in the state of Vermont, it's just that they've come together specifically to look at this issue of contaminants in the region. So that's why you haven't seen them before.

Okay. Where did they do the testing, and what did they find?

The first test that I am aware they did was at Salmon Hole, which is an area of the Winooski River just downstream from Winooski Falls. And a second place that they did some tests was in the Gillbrook Reservoir. And in both instances, they found levels of PFAS they said are concerning.

Why did this group want to do its own testing?

The state has been aware that there has been PFAS in and around the Winooski River for several years. They have been public about those tests and those test results, but this group felt that the state and the Air National Guard have not been transparent enough about those test results and the contamination that is in the river.

And so what they said was, they wanted to do testing of their own so that they could release to the public those results, and that the public could then take action on that information — either by not swimming or fishing in the waterways of concern.

And does the group sound confident about where these compounds are coming from? I'm wondering, also, if they're pointing the finger of blame at anyone here?

I think the group feels fairly strongly that the PFAS contamination is almost certainly to be coming, in part, from the Vermont Air National Guard base.

The base is on the north side of Burlington International Airport. It's been operating there as an Air National Guard Base for the last 70 years or so. And there have been contamination problems on that base.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: State Starts PFAS Testing In Lake Memphremagog

What has become clear through additional analysis and study of the base's operations is that they used large amounts of PFAS-laden firefighting foams as they practice their firefighting activities there. And the examination of that problem has revealed that PFAS has been leaching off the base and into the Winooski River.

However, they also know that PFAS is a chemical that can be found in leachate from landfills, which gets treated in Montpelier and then, because the filtration technology in Montpelier is not robust, those chemicals are making it into the Winooski River farther upstream as well.

We've seen PFAS in Bennington, in the southern part of the state, too. It's been a problem in Lake Memphremagog, which also has concerns about PFAS as well.

That's right. There's different types of PFAS contamination. In Bennington, as you probably recall, they were basically taking Teflon and they were baking it onto these fabrics to make them more durable and weather the elements better. And it was going up into the air through these big chimneys, and then it was landing on people's properties. And if you had a well, that material may have been making it into your drinking water.

In this case, we've got a very different set of circumstances, with the firefighting foam that was used to practice firefighting activities at the air base going down directly into the soil, and then into the groundwater and then sort of making its way out of the ground and into the Winooski River.

Well, here's where it gets really thorny, because you spoke with state environmental officials about this for your story in Seven Days. What did they have to say about these results?

State officials have been doing their own testing of this problem, as you mentioned, in Lake Memphremagog and around the base. They are a little concerned that individual groups — that private volunteers — would be going out and doing their own type of testing for a couple reasons.

One is that they worry that this confuses people, to have two groups of people releasing test results about waterways in the state. They say that's a little concerning.

Another concern is that these tests have to be done very particularly. The test results here are so sensitive that if you had any contamination on your hand as you as you did the tests, those could influence the results. So they're worried that they're not being done by professionals.

And then the third thing is, I think they're concerned about the way that the tests are being conducted by the lab, because there's a lab in the Midwest that's doing the testing of the samples. And it's just a different type of testing than the state is doing, and so they worry that there's two different levels that are being publicized. And they would rather have a little more consistency for the sake of public understanding.

Where is all this going? Because the bottom line is, people want to know if there's PFAS in a popular fishing hole, or in other areas. Are they going to be doing any follow ups here? When are we going to get a definitive answer from the state on whether or not these tests are accurate?

Well, the state is in the midst of a multiyear testing process. It began up in Lake Memphremagog, because there was some concern about PFAS levels in Memphremagog. But they also have been expanding that testing to the Winooski River, because they knew that there were issues with the base and the Winooski River near the base. And so they did water testing of their own, which came back with levels that showed PFAS in the river, but at lower levels than what this private group found.

They've also gone further and they've done testing of fish samples, because they want to make sure that the levels of PFAS that they know are in the river are not getting into people's bodies. So, they're worried that people might be fishing in the Winooski River, and eating that fish, and so they've done some tests that show there is PFAS in the fish in the Winooski River. But, they say at the moment there's not cause for too much alarm, because the levels in the fish seem to be sort of about what you would expect. Because PFAS is a chemical that's been around for a long time, and it's in lots of places in the environment, and so they say it's a little too early to ring the alarm about the PFAS levels and fish.

And is it too early to ask whether the environmental group that did this testing agrees with those findings from the state on that, about the low levels [of PFAS in the Winooski River]?

The group feels as though the test results they have done have shown higher levels than what the state's results have shown, and they think more testing should be done.

And more importantly, that the results of those tests should be made public, and that there should be more attention paid to the levels of contamination in the Winooski River so that people can make good decisions about how to protect themselves.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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