Teflon legacy stubbornly sticks to Bennington

As we wait for it to dawn on Texas lawmakers that some of the toxic misery that is being visited upon them is due to lax regulation in a business-first state, Vermont is confronting its own history of safety “compromises.”

In an eye-opening series of feature stories, “Teflon Town,” Vermont Digger and the Bennington Banner explore a tale of regulatory failure that belies Vermont’s clean green reputation

Details of this “business friendly” environmental compromise are damning:

For decades, Vermont officials asked ChemFab to test smokestack emissions to determine whether the company was emitting toxic chemicals in the manufacture of Teflon-coated fabrics. One of those chemicals was PFOA, used to bond the Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene, to fiberglass fabric. Those tests were never performed. Instead of requiring ChemFab to meet environmental rules, state officials took a conciliatory approach and repeatedly allowed the company to violate emissions standards without penalty.

According to Digger, even though the state learned of the hazards from PFOA as early as 1997, no attempt was made to test the emissions from the ChemFab facility in Bennington for this substance until 2016. This, because the premier producer of Teflon-coated fabrics was considered too important to the Vermont economy to inconvenience with regulatory overbsight that the company claimed (falsely) to avoid in other locations.

•Residents filed hundreds of complaints about a “dirty plastic” odor from the North Bennington plant over a 24-year period.

•The company was supposed to catalog every chemical in the smokestack emissions. Results from testing in 1985, which established the baseline monitoring standards for a 15-year period, were badly executed. The tests were “not representative of stack emissions,” according to Mike Kawahata, the scientist with Environment One Corporation, the contractor for ChemFab that conducted the tests. State Rep. Marie Condon told DEC officials that it appeared ChemFab might be “intentionally withholding damaging information about its toxic emissions.” The state allowed the flawed results to stand.

•In internal memos, the commissioner of the Department of Health and field inspectors for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation asked senior officials at the Agency of Natural Resources to test for fluorocarbons, including PFOA. The tests were never conducted.

•Regulators recorded dozens of emissions violations from 1984 to 2002, but only one enforcement action was taken during that period.

•ChemFab managers misrepresented pollution control standards in other states and pushed Vermont regulators to relax air quality standards based on false claims. For example, the company said New Hampshire allowed competitors and other ChemFab facilities to operate without any pollution control devices on some smokestacks. In response to pressure from ChemFab, Vermont authorities gave the company tax breaks and waived air quality rules.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone in this instance of environmental protection failure, extending through the administrations of both Democratic and Republican governors.

It’s the same old story we read over and over again: Vermont “has to be more business friendly.” Inevitably, that is the thinly veiled argument for letting big offenders off the hook on regulations while holding small businesses fully accountable.

…And as far as successfully retaining the “valuable” employer was concerned(?)…once again, it’s a familiar story:

Despite numerous concessions from Vermont officials at every level of government, in 2002, ChemFab closed its Bennington factory and moved its headquarters to Merrimack, New Hampshire.

ChemFab cut and ran, but it’s toxic legacy continues to haunt the groundwater in Bennington county sickening residents and undermining property values.

Is that really “business friendly?”

 

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

3 thoughts on “Teflon legacy stubbornly sticks to Bennington

  1. Plenty of blame and it goes around and around and around.
    Yet real people will be suffering health effects,the town and state will probably bear the financial cost and no one likely ever held responsible.

  2. It is assumed, by law, in the EU, that harm done to the public by a product is ‘prima face’ evidence of guilt by the company that produced that product. That company must prove its innocence at it’s expense. This legal process might be usable in Vermont. It is the reverse of innocence until proved guilty.

    Considering that license to do business is supposed to benefit the public interest, failure of such is contrary to the broad intent of the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions. The EU is ahead of the US in considering that businesses do not have privileges beyond those of the citizenry. This is consistent with English Common Law, prior to capitalism.

    Harm can consist of lack of safe use, degradation of environment, increase in public expenditures and associated taxes. To be brief, a business should be neutral or positive to public interests. A business must be to the advantage of all citizens.

    Vermont does have planning with regard to topography and growth. It should be expanded to formally include safety, the environment, public finances and all circumstances to prevent degradation of public interest.

    All institutions and persons MUST act in the public interest. We do not have a society with anything less. Our constitutions are nullified by any lesser interpretations of public responsibility.

    The above words said or written are useless without effective consequences for violation of their intents. Otherwise, personal greed prevails.

    Applied to the problem of the present discussion of Teflon public administration and law, there are and have been persons in Vermont who should lose or have reduced positions of responsibility or their retirements for their administration of the ChemFab facility in Bennington.

    These problems of government must be remedied. Proposals for solutions to Teflon government are needed, not more reporting of what occurred.

    Vermont is in need of an ethical revolution.

    Perry Cooper

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