Updated Dec. 30 at 12:16 p.m.
Residents who complained of water and soil contamination from two shuttered Bennington factories are one step closer to receiving compensation in a class-action suit.
On Dec. 17, the federal court preliminarily approved a $34 million settlement in the lawsuit against factory owner Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation.
Under the November settlement agreement, the French multinational company would pay $26.2 million to eligible property owners affected by PFOA contamination.
The company also would spend up to $6 million to monitor certain diseases among residents adversely exposed to the chemical, used to coat fiberglass fabrics at its defunct factories in North Bennington and Bennington. The rest of the money would cover a portion of the attorneys’ fees.
Area residents allege that the industrial plants emitted PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, which contaminated their drinking water, groundwater and soil. Saint-Gobain denies the accusation and any wrongdoing under the settlement.
The preliminary approval, given by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford, includes a timeline of actions leading up to the final approval hearing April 18.
The notice of settlement will be mailed to potential claimants starting Jan. 3. They can begin submitting claims Jan. 18, and claim approvals will be done after the final approval hearing.
If the rest of the process goes smoothly, plaintiff attorney Emily Joselson said, approved claims can start to be paid around the end of May.
That would be six years since the lawsuit was filed in May 2016.
The PFOA contamination affected an estimated 2,700 properties and 9,000 residents in the towns of Bennington and Shaftsbury and the village of North Bennington, according to attorneys for the complainants.
Jim Sullivan, a North Bennington resident who has been working to organize other residents affected by the contamination, said they are glad the civil case has reached this juncture.
“It’s been a long road,” he said.
Sullivan said the complainants are particularly eager to start the medical-monitoring process called for in the settlement.
This free monitoring service will be available to residents who ingested PFOA-contaminated water and who have more than 2.1 parts per billion of PFOA in their blood. The PFOA background level for the U.S. general population is 2.08 parts per billion.
Property owners within the “zone of concern” also would be eligible to claim compensation if they meet the qualifications: They either owned residential real estate within the zone as of March 14, 2016, or after that date bought property that was later added to the zone.
The preliminary approval also lays out February deadlines for potential claimants to opt out of the class-action suit and to file objections to the settlement.
Joselson, a partner at one of the three law firms representing the plaintiffs, describes the agreement as “an extraordinarily good settlement.” She said she hopes potential claimants will recognize its benefits and that there won’t be a significant number of objections.
Another plaintiff attorney, David Silver, said the only reason he can think of for people deciding to opt out is if they want to file their own lawsuit against the French plastics company.
“To go against Saint-Gobain on your own would be, to put it mildly, cost-prohibitive,” he said. “The firms, we’ve spent over a million dollars in expenses to get this far.”
Their expenses over the past five and a half years include payments for expert witnesses, deposition fees and filing fees with the court, Joselson said.
Forms are available through benningtonvtclassaction.com.
When asked for comment, Saint-Gobain said in a statement it is “pleased that Chief Judge Crawford has given preliminary approval to the settlement agreement, allowing the process to move on to the next phase.”
The final approval hearing before Crawford is scheduled to take place April 18 at the federal courthouse in Rutland.
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