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Saint-Gobain Fouled Groundwater, Class Says

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - An industrial chemical discovered in the public water system and private wells has ruined home values and the quality of life in a quiet upstate village, a class action filed by four residents claims.

In a complaint filed in Albany Federal Court Feb. 24, the residents claim Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, two industrial giants contaminated groundwater with perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA, in the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

State officials earlier this month identified the two companies are the parties responsible for the contamination.

Saint-Gobain operates a manufacturing plant in a facility in the village that once housed Allied Signal, which now does business as Honeywell. Both companies used PFOA to produce water- and stain-resistant fabric at the plant, according to the complaint.

PFOA, also a key component in non-stick Teflon, "has been identified as an emerging contaminant of concern," the residents say.

The four - Michele Baker, Angela Corbett, Michelle O'Leary and Daniel Schuttig - claim their homes have lost value since the PFOA contamination was disclosed. O'Leary also says she worries about future health effects on her two children.

The complaint says animal studies linked PFOA to increased risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands and pancreas. In humans, workplace exposure to PFOA showed higher risks of bladder and kidney cancer.

Lead plaintiff Baker, who draws her water from a well, says she was trying to refinance her mortgage when she learned in late January that the bank would no longer provide the financing.

The complaint says banks have indicated an unwillingness to write mortgages to purchase or refinance homes in the village because access to potable water is required for loans to be approved.

Testing last summer found PFOA in the village's municipal water system and in some private wells, the complaint states.

The plaintiffs say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended in November and again in December that alternate water sources for drinking and cooking be found.

They claim the EPA acknowledged at a public meeting in January that New York's request to have the village designated as a federal Superfund site "would adversely impact the property values of the village."

There also are plans to designate the Saint-Gobain plant a state Superfund site.

Hoosick Falls, 45 minutes northeast of Albany, lies adjacent to the Hoosic River and not far from the Vermont border. The village's website describes it as a picturesque community of 3,600 residents with "graceful Victorian dwellings" along tree-lined streets and nearby "spectacular" trout fishing.

Saint-Gobain's plant, on the southern end of the village, employs 190 people. The company, a Paris-based multinational, is one of the 100 largest industrial firms in the world and a leading producer of high-performance polymer products for the aeronautics, automotive, food processing and energy fields, according to the complaint.

Honeywell, a Fortune 100 company, was acquired by Allied Signal in 1999. The combined company kept the Honeywell name.

Saint-Gobain took over the Hoosick Falls plant around 1999. It had operated since 1955 under several owners, including Allied Signal from 1986 to 1997.

The complaint says PFOA had been used at the plant from the late 1960s until Saint-Gobain phased it out around 2004.

It describes a manufacturing process used by several plant owners that had workers add liquid PFOA to trays of fabric, then recover any remaining solution before washing out the trays at the end of their shift. The runoff went into floor drains, resulting "in the discharge of PFOA into the soil and, in turn, into the aquifer."

PFOA also remained as a "sticky residue" on the interior stacks of industrial ovens, which periodically had to be cleaned in large sinks. That also created a waste water discharge that wound up in soil and the aquifer, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs say the village drilled a new supply well for the municipal water system in 2007 that was some 500 yards from the Saint-Gobain plant.

Late last year, Saint-Gobain began providing free bottled water to village residents. It also agreed to underwrite the installation of a granulated activated carbon filter system for the municipal water system to remove the PFOA.

Water started to be pumped through the system this week, according to a news release from village officials.

The officials said sampling of the treated water by the state Department of Health had not yet occurred to see whether PFOA was being reduced to safe levels. Residents were advised to keep using bottled water for drinking and cooking.

The complaint seeks to have two subclasses of plaintiffs designated, those who use the municipal system and those who use private wells.

The named plaintiffs, two municipal water users and two private well users, want the same kind of testing and permanent filtration systems for affected private wells as for the municipal system. They also seek remediation of the aquifer that everyone relies on for drinking water.

"Defendants' manufacturing processes and negligent, reckless and/or intentional handling of PFOA solution constituted an abnormally dangerous activity for which defendants are strictly liable," the plaintiffs say.

They seek monetary damages for costs related to remediating their property, compensation for the lost value and enjoyment of their homes, and punitive damages. They also want consequential damages sufficient to fund a medical monitoring program to assess the risks of PFOA exposure.

Ellen Relkin of Weitz & Luxenberg in Manhattan represents the plaintiffs.

Weitz, the big personal-injury law firm, organized a town hall-style meeting in late January with potential Hoosick Falls litigants that featured well-known environmental activist Ellen Brockovich.

Weitz and Brockovich, who consults for the firm, announced this week that they would expand their PFOA investigation to include the community of Petersburgh, about 15 minutes south of Hoosick Falls, where the municipal system also appeared tainted by the chemical.Reacting to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman for Saint-Gobain told Albany media outlets that the company had acted quickly on the problem but respected "the right of individuals to pursue their claims in a court of law."

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