Friends, neighbors and state officials knew Sandy Sumner and Marie-Pierre Huguet for their gardens.
The couple housed an abundance of vegetables, which they tended carefully and ate often, in a whopping eight raised beds. Sandy had a tendency to get carried away, Huguet said.
After the couple received a call from a state official in 2016 telling them to immediately stop drinking their water — their well was contaminated with chemicals from a closed factory nearby — they knew they could not eat the vegetables fed with water from the tap. They decided they did not want to watch the garden die.
Huguet moved to Vermont from France more than 30 years ago, and she’s always been a great cook, according to a close friend. William Sayer Sumner Jr., whom everyone called “Sandy,” grew up in Pittsburgh and moved north after attending New England College. His extended family lived in Vermont, and he visited routinely during the summers.
Huguet recounted the stacks of frozen meals stockpiled in his refrigerator when she first met him, but soon, he was a cook, too.
Sumner ripped up all eight raised beds while Huguet was away. It broke her heart when she came home to the sight, she said.
“You live healthy. You make choices,” she said. “We didn’t have fancy cars or anything like that. We had a beautiful, simple life that we built together.”
The garden’s demise was only the beginning of the impact chemical contamination had on their lives. In the years to come, Sumner would seek medical treatment after discovering a mass in his stomach, which the doctor would diagnose as undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer.
The tumor measured 20 centimeters, Huguet said. During a December 2020 procedure, which Sumner nearly didn’t survive, surgeons removed the tumor. By his checkup the following March, it had returned.
That’s when they knew Sumner’s illness was terminal, Huguet said. With the aid of Vermont’s Act 39, a law that allows terminally ill patients to end their lives, Sumner died on Aug. 4, 2021, at the age of 69.
Sumner believed strongly that his exposure to PFOA caused his illness, Huguet said, though it’s nearly impossible to be certain.
From the time he learned of the contamination in his well, Sumner advocated for the residents within the affected 26-square-mile area. With Huguet, he participated in a class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $34 million settlement last fall. When state officials wanted to hold a meeting in Bennington to update residents, they often counted on Sumner to help spread the word. He invited lawmakers to his house, and he frequently spoke to members of the media.
Sumner supported a bill that would give victims of toxic chemical exposure an explicit right to sue responsible companies for medical monitoring costs. Two previous iterations of the bill were vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott, and a new bill, S.113, is now taking a turn through the state Legislature.
Huguet wants to see it pass.
In early February, with a VTDigger reporter and photographer, Huguet sat at the kitchen table in a new apartment in the center of downtown Bennington. Sumner made the arrangements for her before he died. From her windows, she can see downtown and the nearest mountains.
Throughout the last several years, Huguet has been present for every meeting and involved in every conversation about PFOA contamination, she said, but Sumner was always the spokesperson.
“People don’t really know me — I was behind him,” Huguet said. “I was happy behind him. I was always quiet and listening. So now I have to speak up because it mattered to him.”
A concerning call
Richard Spiese, a hazardous site manager with Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, met Sumner for the first time when he took a sample from Sumner’s well in 2016.
In February of that year, on the heels of the discovery of widespread PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls, New York, Spiese had been asked to sample some private wells in Bennington based on a concern about the ChemFab plant, which closed in 2002. It is currently owned by Saint Gobain, an international plastics company.
Spiese was considered an expert at the time, he said with a laugh, because of a webinar he had seen.
“That tells you how much we knew about PFAS at that point,” he said.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a class of human-made chemicals that have long been hailed in certain industries because of their remarkable ability to make products nonstick and waterproof. Often called a “forever chemical,” they take a very long time to break down.
The chemical still is not regulated at the federal level, but over time, the Environmental Protection Agency has linked PFAS to negative human health impacts such as decreased fertility and high blood pressure in pregnant people, developmental delays, certain cancers, suppressed immune systems and high cholesterol.
In the early ’90s, Sumner and Huguet noticed black dust coming from the ChemFab factory down the hill from their home. Both of them started having frequent nosebleeds. Sumner contacted the factory at the time to complain.
Huguet said she knew about the contamination in Hoosick Falls, but it never occurred to her that the same thing could be happening in Bennington.
“When we met Richard, I remember looking back at the irony of it — joking, laughing,” she said. “‘Yeah, do whatever you want, test the water, it’s good.’ We didn’t know.”
Spiese’s sample of the Sumners’ well came back with alarmingly high levels of PFOA. As Huguet tells it, a frantic state official phoned the couple to tell them to immediately stop drinking their water and to “try not to breathe when taking a shower.” The first reading showed 580 parts per trillion, and a second test showed 780 parts per trillion, whereas the state’s limit for drinking water is 20 parts per trillion.
The couple had been drinking the water for decades. Later, tests showed extremely high levels in their blood: 305 micrograms per liter in Sumner’s and 415 micrograms per liter in Huguet’s, hundreds of times higher than the 2.1 micrograms found on average across the country, and still significantly higher than the 10 micrograms on average in affected people in Bennington.
During the years ChemFab’s plant was operating, it emitted thousands of pounds of PFOA through its smokestacks. Contamination reached a 26-square-mile area — 18 times the size of Central Park — impacting around 2,700 residential properties and 8,000 residents in Bennington, North Bennington and Shaftsbury.
The state sued Saint Gobain and reached a settlement in 2019. It focused primarily on ensuring residents had access to clean drinking water and helped the municipalities extend water lines to neighborhoods so residents could shift away from well water.
Separately, some residents, including Huguet and Sumner, filed a class action lawsuit against Saint Gobain for property damage and expenses to monitor their health. The $34 million settlement, reached last fall, was the result of five years of litigation.
“Sandy and I did not believe in anger,” Huguet said. “That’s not an emotion we cared about. If we can laugh at something, we’re good to go. But Sandy was angry. He tried not to let it impact him too much because it was, again, an alien emotion. But he was going to do everything in his power to make sure that Saint Gobain took responsibility.”
Cause of action
Sumner died before he could benefit from the $34 million settlement. It would have given him access to medical monitoring, which could have helped him catch his illness sooner or plan for it.
However, a statewide policy that would help patients access medical monitoring costs may have helped him, Huguet said. Proposals for such a policy have cleared the state’s Legislature twice but were vetoed both times by Gov. Phil Scott, who cited potential impacts on businesses.
The bill would give victims of toxic chemical exposure — those who do and don’t show symptoms — a cause of action so they can sue the companies responsible for the pollution. The policy would not cover the cost of medical treatment. It’s too difficult to prove that any one particular illness came from PFOA. Still, Sumner was an ardent advocate.
“If you’ve been impacted by something, your medical monitoring process should be paid by those people that are responsible for that kind of pollution,” said Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
The new version of the bill recently cleared the Senate, and Scott has given some indications that he might sign it.
“I don’t know all the details of it, but it looks much better than the bills previously on my desk,” he said during a press briefing in early February.
Businesses and insurance companies remain wary. The law would be the first of its kind in the nation, and insurers haven’t yet carved out coverage policies to address the potential new form of liability.
Jamie Feehan, a lobbyist with the American Property and Casualty Insurance Association, told lawmakers that the new cause of action for medical monitoring “poses a new risk, or a broadening of an existing risk, that insurers will now have to consider in writing a policy.”
Lack of existing precedent complicates things more, he said.
“Does an insurer feel comfortable continuing to provide insurance to a company impacted by this bill?” he said. “Will the insurer write a new policy in this area for a company? This might leave the insured to look for other commercial insurers or to the surplus lines market to fill this liability need.”
Advocates of the legislation say those exposed to contaminants should not front the cost of monitoring their health. Under the class-action settlement, Bennington residents have access to those expenses, but the five-year, multimillion-dollar process proved how difficult it would be for other victims of chemical exposure to claim the same services.
Emily Joselson, an attorney with the Middlebury firm Langrock, Sperry and Wool, who represented Bennington residents in the class-action suit, said during testimony before lawmakers earlier this month that she is not sure her firm will take on another case of this magnitude.
“I know few other Vermont firms capable of or willing to risk a five-plus-year litigation of this sort against a huge and well-financed corporation,” Joselson said. “The costs and the risks are simply too great. That’s why we need S.113.”
Jim Sullivan, who worked to organize neighbors in the class-action settlement, told lawmakers he can “certainly understand concerns from industry perspective, and costs and risks.
“But our costs and risks are very immediate and very personal and very profound,” he said.
It’s hard to determine what, exactly, Sumner would have gained from medical monitoring, Huguet said. It wouldn’t have saved him, she knows. Maybe it would have provided peace of mind, more time to plan, more awareness of their situation, the ability to treat the cancer differently, an opportunity to go see Huguet’s family in France to whom Sumner never said goodbye.
“To me, it’s such a basic right,” she said.
In a 2019 interview with VTDigger, Sumner told reporters he spent money out of pocket for his medical monitoring expenses. Other neighbors who were also exposed have had “relatable” cancers, Sumner said, meaning they’re associated with exposure to PFAS.
“I want to live as long as I can,” he said at the time. “I want the option of living out a natural life without this interference, interruption. And we just don’t know. We feel like that freedom has sort of been taken away from us.”
What’s already lost
Near the end of Sumner’s life, Huguet began to hate Wednesdays. Sumner wanted to make sure everything was in order when he died, and Huguet did not have work meetings those days, so they began to fill with lawyers and doctors appointments.
But humor wasn’t lost. Huguet and Sumner bantered about urns at the funeral home. Sumner insisted on making his own arrangements so Huguet wouldn’t have to.
Sumner took out an ad in the Bennington Banner and wrote his own obituary — several short lines delivering news about his death and information about where to donate. In place of a funeral, he wanted a celebration of life.
His death has become a call to action for advocates of medical monitoring and a symbol of the ongoing impact of the contamination in Bennington.
Spiese, the state official who first monitored Sumners’ well, developed a friendship with Sumner over the years he traveled to Bennington. He remembers sitting on his porch, talking about PFOA and other things — the town, the garden, politics.
“When his obituary came out, someone sent it to me. I mean, I was — it’s just such a loss for the world,” Spiese said. “He believed adamantly that we needed to do what we could do to make the world a better place. I don’t want to say it’s a rare person, there’s probably more than I know, but he was certainly the poster child for that attitude.”
When John Camelio moved to Bennington, Sumner was one of the first people he met. They became fast friends, seeing each other every day, shoveling snow for neighbors and golfing together. Sumner was a carpenter and Camelio restored furniture. When two more of their neighbors were diagnosed with cancer, they talked through it together. When Sumner died, Camelio spoke at his memorial.
Now, he often looks across the street, and while he’s happy to see a new, young couple living in the home, he misses his friend.
“If I saw Sandy out in the yard, I’d go out there, and we’d have our talks,” Camelio said. “He’d call me, ‘we’re going for a walk.’ He’d call me, ‘we’re going to play golf.’ You know, ‘let’s eat over.’ Let’s do this. Let’s do that. It’s left its mark. Everyone loved Sandy.”
Huguet is making good on her plans to speak out. She testified before lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this session, a process she said broke her heart during the process and after — having to sum up the life she shared with her husband in paragraphs on paper.
“Through no fault of our own, I lost my husband. I lost my quality of life. I had to sell my home, and I will worry about my health for the rest of my life,” she told the committee. “All I did was drink water.
“I do not want any Vermonter, or anyone for that matter, to go through what I went through.”
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