Teflon fabric coating business left toxic legacy

Teflon Town: ChemFab's toxic legacy is a five-part series on the history of the company in Bennington and the impact of water contamination from the factories on local residents.

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In this five-part series, Jim Therrien, who writes for New England Newspapers in Vermont and VTDigger, and VTDigger reporter Mike Polhamus examine the history of the Bennington plants and the impact of toxic chemical emissions on local residents.

BENNINGTON — "The area within a 15-mile radius of Bennington may well be the Teflon glass coating capital of the world."

That 1968 quote from the vice president of the newly formed Chemical Fabrics Corporation set the tone for a honeymoon period between the Bennington community and the company that lasted more than 20 years.

There would be no industrial wastes from the new industry, a company official would insist to a Bennington Banner reporter in 1968, and fumes from the drying process would be odor free and non-toxic.

"Absolutely no pollutants are given off by our operation," he would say.

The outsized confidence of the company's early leaders was justified by the eventual success of the fledgling ChemFab firm located in this bucolic town in southwestern Vermont, adjacent to New York State and 10 miles north of the Massachusetts border.

ChemFab quickly became famous for Teflon-coated fiberglass fabrics used on sports stadium domes and other structures.

In retrospect, the effusive language officials used to describe the supposedly emission-free chemical plant is chilling.

That optimism was only justified if you weren't aware — as we are today — of the widespread, environmental damage from PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) used in the production of the company's revolutionary Teflon fabrics.

PFOA has since polluted the environment and seeped into soils in Bennington, other industrial sites in the United States and across the globe.

The highly toxic chemical has emerged over the past two decades as an enduring contamination threat to drinking water supplies. The substance is believed to be detectable at some level in the blood of nearly every human being in the United States. Readings have been reported in animals as far north as the Arctic Circle.



WORKING IN THE TOWERS

The founders of Chemical Fabrics, including John R. Cook, began experimenting with Teflon coatings at the former Warren Wire Company factory in Pownal, which was established in 1947 by Cook and his partners and later sold to General Cable Corp. in the 1960s. Cook and others from that business then formed Chemical Fabrics in Bennington in 1968.

The company specialized in the coating of glass fabrics and "high temperature woven products with Teflon and other insulating materials for use by the electrical and heat sealing industries," a company official told the local newspaper in 1970.

Teflon was the same water-dispersant material manufactured by DuPont that had become a popular pot and pan surface material that resisted sticking.

A decade later, the company transferred operations to a new 43,500 square foot headquarters and manufacturing complex on Water Street (Route 67A) in North Bennington, according to the March 1978 edition of the company newsletter ChemFab Today.

David E. Barber remembers the plant well. He worked at the North Bennington factory for 21 years, beginning in 1979, until shortly before the plant closed in 2002. He has also lived near the plant for more than 40 years.

ChemFab was purchased in 2000 by the international firm, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which moved the local operation to New Hampshire two years later, shutting down the Vermont plant.

Fabrics were coated with Teflon "in the towers," or vertical drying ovens, Barber said. The original four towers at the North Bennington plant — referred to as Towers A, B, C and D.

A single "tower" held a vertical loop of fabric, which proceeded slowly through a stainless steel tray near the bottom of the array up into a heated area toward the roof, where the Teflon "was baked in," Barber said.

Over time, a number of newer tower operations were set up, labeled Tower E through at least the letter M, he said. The speed of coating operations varied, Barber said, from 3 feet to 5 feet per minute to up to 21 feet per minute at one point. Some of the towers were heated with electricity, most with propane gas.

The largest tower, Barber said, primarily created the wide architectural fabrics used in sports domes and similar structures.

Barber said the plant ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with larger and smaller tower operations sometimes running on different weekly schedules.

"Overtime was never an issue," he said.

The manufacturing process involved filling stainless steel trays with a thin, milky liquid and running the rolls through them one or more times, depending on the fabric. With a tower running at about 5 feet per minute, it would take three or four hours to coat a 300-yard roll of fabric, Barber said.

When he first started at ChemFab, "we didn't even have stainless steel pitchers to scoop the Teflon out, which came later," he said.

"You bring in a milk carton from home; you cut the top off, and then you just put it in this 30-gallon drum and it would sink to the bottom. So you rolled your shirt sleeve up and reached down in the Teflon drum and you pulled it up. To me, it looked like low-fat milk; it was real thin and watery Then you go to the sink and you wash off your arms."

The intensity of fumes from the drying process "depended on what we ran," Barber said.

There were complaints from plant neighbors about the smoke or fumes, he said, "but it wasn't always bad; it was hit and miss. I do know that at night we ran a lot of crap because it would smoke so bad, and they didn't want the neighbors to complain, because you could see the smoke pouring out of the top."

The odor always seemed the same to him, regardless of the fabric, he said. "It was just a nasty smell, and it was like a hazy smoke, a blue haze We all stayed under the fresh air ducts — they pumped in fresh air from outside near each machine."

An elaborate system of ventilation with 6-inch wide vents brought outside air to each machine, he said.

The company also spent "a lot of money on abaters," Barber said.

The gas-fired abaters in the tower stacks sucked in the chemical fumes and burned the toxic by-products similar to a catalytic converter on a motor vehicle, he said.

Barber lives directly behind the plant, and his well is contaminated with PFOA. He said he is fortunate that he has had no serious health issues as yet, despite his 20-year career at the Teflon factory.

His well was found to have 38 parts per trillion of PFOA before a carbon filtering unit was installed. While that was not among the highest readings found in area wells (up to more than 2,000 parts per trillion), Barber's blood test revealed a relatively high level. His blood had a microgram per liter level in the 400s, he said, way above the average for the U.S. population: 2.1 micrograms per liter.

About 500 Bennington residents in the area of contamination have been tested for PFOA. The Vermont Department of Health has reported the average level of blood contamination at 10 micrograms per liter. The highest concentration found in a local resident was around 1,125 micrograms per liter.

State officials said PFOA blood levels are known to slowly fall over time with no additional exposure to the chemical, but they can also build up in organs of the body even if the source, such as drinking water, is not at a high level.

Studies have indicated that PFOA exposure contributes to high cholesterol, high blood-pressure, immune system effects, thyroid disease, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.

In Bennington, the state Health Department determined that drinking contaminated water was probably the most significant source of exposure but working with PFOA also could have a serious effect.

As he recounted how workers at the plant dipped their hands in the liquid Teflon, Barber said "I just feel bad we weren't told."

Workers who got the Teflon liquid on their hands and smoked cigarettes would get sick from inhaling chemicals in the vapor, Barber said, contracting what is known as Teflon flu, or "polymer fume fever."

WARREN WIRE OPERATIONS

William Bolton worked at the Warren Wire Co. plant in Pownal in the early 1960s. He believes working at the plant and later living in a house near the North Bennington plant, likely affected his health, leading to cancer and a bypass operation.

"When we first started, [the Warren Wire mill] was not always vented properly," Bolton said. The indoor air could become "like a blue cloud," he said, "and we would all get the shakes."

Bolton said the company "was doing all experimental stuff at that time, and we bought our stuff from DuPont."

He said the milky liquid from barrels marked Teflon and containing a warning label was used in coatings for wire, fabrics and other products.

The substance trademarked during the mid-1940s by DuPont as Teflon was discovered in the late 1930s by a scientist working for DuPont, and the company began to use the chemical in a variety of products in the years that followed. The first non-stick Teflon coated pans appeared in the early 1960s.

"Down there, at Warren Wire, we didn't have any scrubbers," Bolton said, referring to exhaust venting units. "That stuff just went out of the stack. And if we had fog, or real heavy air, that stuff would not go out of the stack properly; it would sink back into the building. And we would end up getting the shakes."

He added, "I have had bladder cancer and everything else — a bypass. And a lot of that stuff, I presume, probably comes right from this."

The Warren Wire workers "kind of bathed in the stuff; we all did," he said. "Almost all the guys I worked with there are dead, and they all died of cancer."

Bolton, who later became a contractor and was involved in a renovation project at ChemFab's North Bennington factory, said the ventilation system seemed an improvement over that of the Pownal operation. But the emissions from chemicals baked dry during the coating process still smelled strongly of sulfur and created the familiar whitish-blue haze, he said

"When we first moved here, our porch was not covered, and we couldn't stand the smell," said his wife, Linda Bolton. "And there were hardly any birds around. It is only in the past five years [long after the plant shut down] that there are birds here."

Those issues were not noticeable when they purchased their home near the plant in 1991, the Boltons and others in the area said, because the odors and haze would come and go, depending in part on wind direction. In general, though, they said the emission problems intensified — as did the complaints of neighbors — when business boomed at the plant.

Bolton said he thought the biggest problem was that the abater units in the exhaust stacks were inadequate or sometimes malfunctioned.

The Boltons, unlike many other neighbors of the North Bennington plant, have town water because they are on the state highway. But their swimming pool was greatly affected, they said, with a haze settling in the water when the air was calm.

"Any time we had heavy air that pool would be all blue," Bolton said. "And in the yard the smell would just take your breath away."

He added, "That stuff would lay down on everything. You couldn't open the windows."

When he complained to factory officials, he said, "the first thing they said over there was, `you know, if people complain too much these people are all going to lose their jobs.' And right away you say to yourself, `oh man, if that goes out everything else here is falling apart.'''

Neighbors of the factory filed numerous complaints about odors and fumes, especially during the years leading up to the plant closure in 2002, two years after its purchase by Saint-Gobain. When the plant closed, neighbors said, they thought their problems were over — only to learn in 2016 of the groundwater contamination.



THE DOME FABRIC BUBBLE

Over the first 10 years of ChemFab's existence in Bennington, the business developed new manufacturing processes and uses for Teflon coatings, including in the production of coated rolls of light, durable, long-lasting fiberglass fabrics. Those products included conveyor belting and ultimately fabric for stadium domes or other massive roofing structures.

This success continued even after Cook was killed in a plane crash en route to Bennington during an ice storm in 1976. ChemFab's expansion continued under his brother, Paul Cook, and his son, Warren Cook, who assumed the role of president in 1978.

The Pontiac Silver Dome in Michigan and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., which opened in 1980, were early examples of Teflon roofing fabrics, along with the massive Hajj Terminal at the New Jeddah International Airport in Saudi Arabia. The company expanded manufacturing and/or sales operations in several countries.

During the early 1980s, as ChemFab required more space, the headquarters was relocated to Merrimack, N.H. The firm soon after went public and was traded on the NASDAQ market. Gross sales in 2000, before the business was sold, were reported at $126 million.

According to published histories and articles about the company, the 1970 World's Fair held in Osaka, Japan, featured lightweight vinyl-based roofing, which inspired Cook to develop a sturdier material for such roofing with fiberglass, Teflon and other substances. His firm worked with DuPont and Owens-Corning on research, which resulted in ChemFab's trademark Sheerfill material.

The company also worked with New York state-based Birdair Structures Inc. to develop structural supports for the material and roofing installation techniques. The first domelike structures with Sheerfill were erected in the early 1970s, with the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan project coming in the mid-70s.

A few years later, the company won a major contract for the Hajj Terminal canopy, which covered 100 acres — approximately 110 football fields. It was designed to shelter nearly 1 million pilgrims on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Chemfab's Sheerfill was said to reflect heat while allowing light to pass through and did not discolor when exposed to extreme temperatures. It was said to be layered and translucent rather than transparent and could be modified to fit the expected conditions at the installation site.

Saint-Gobain closed the North Bennington plant in 2002, two years after acquiring ChemFab, eliminating about 90 local jobs. The company said it was streamlining operations.

An official also told the Banner that the plant's ongoing challenge of keeping emissions within Vermont regulatory standards was a factor in the decision to close the plant.

A TOXIC LEGACY

The former Warren Wire factory, now a warehouse on Route 346, is considered by Vermont officials to be the source of PFOA groundwater contamination in Pownal.

In Bennington, ChemFab would form, grow and move to a larger plant, and eventually produce the resilient fabrics that would revolutionize the industry, especially when it came to dome roofing.

Flash forward to today, and an insurer for the current owners of the Pownal factory is dealing with water contamination issues discovered in early 2016. A new well source for a PFOA-affected water system with 450 customers is being sought, and other cleanup or remediation costs are accruing pertaining to private wells.

In Bennington, the state has been negotiating with Saint-Gobain to address the contamination around the ChemFab sites and provide permanent alternative sources of safe drinking water for the affected residents. In late July, officials announced a partial settlement with the company, which agreed to fund $20 million in municipal water line extensions to about 200 properties in the western sector of the contamination zone.

Further negotiations and environmental testing are continuing for the eastern sector, east of Route 7A and the rail line, and the state hopes to have a similar agreement for those properties by early 2018.

The company also has supplied bottled water and carbon filtering units for contaminated private wells while negotiating with the state over the cost of extending water lines to affected properties.

The fallout from the ChemFab years also includes a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of scores of Bennington residents over property value and other financial losses and distresses stemming from PFOA contamination in private wells and soils.

Additional suits are expected to follow in state court, attorneys have said, filed by individuals over the health effects of exposure to PFOA.




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