John Belter by the contaminated well on his South Burlington farm in 2019
A South Burlington dairy farmer is suing the City of Burlington, contending that his well was contaminated by toxic chemicals that flowed off airport property.
John Belter alleges that the chemicals came from a firefighting foam long used by the Vermont Air National Guard, which leases a portion of the Burlington International Airport. The per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminated the groundwater and a stream that runs across the farm, Belter has previously said.
Now Belter says the city, as airport owner, is responsible for compensating his family and putting an end to the "permanent physical invasion" of his property by the toxic chemicals.
"They’ve been such good farmers, and such responsible stewards of the land, that it’s tragic something like this should happen to them," said the Belters' attorney, Emily Joselson.
PFAS chemicals are found in nonstick cookware and also make clothes and carpets water repellant. But they have been linked to cancer and other serious illnesses. They’re the same class of chemicals that contaminated hundreds of private wells in the Bennington area, and they routinely leach out of landfills in Vermont and across the nation.
PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally in the environment and can accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans. Vermont is one of many states suing DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers of the chemicals.
Guard officials have acknowledged the foam has contaminated the groundwater on the base, but how far it has migrated off base remains an open question. Environmental studies and testing are ongoing, though state regulators say the plume of PFAS contamination reaches the nearby Winooski River.
“As a result of VTANG’s use and release of [the foam] over approximately four decades, PFAS leached into the soil at and around BTV, polluted the surrounding groundwater, and migrated offsite to the adjacent property owned by the Belters,” reads the lawsuit filed last month in Superior Court in Burlington.
The drinking water standard in Vermont is 20 parts per trillion for five PFAS compounds. Belter’s barn well water — before filtration — was 13 times that level in June 2021, while the creek had levels 31 times that high, according to the suit.
The well supplied much of the water that Belter's 400 dairy cows drank for years. In 2017, tests of their milk showed low levels of one PFAS compound. While the Belters' homes are on city water, they and their employees drank water from the barn for years, Joselson said. The family is not alleging that the PFAS has made them sick.
The state Department of Environmental Conversation installed a filter on Belter's contaminated well in 2017 and hired a contractor to maintain and sample the treatment system. The Guard, meanwhile, has stopped using older PFAS foams and replaced them with new versions thought to be less toxic.
The City of Burlington owns the entire 942-acre airport property, even though its located in South Burlington. The southern half is occupied by Burlington International Airport, while the northern half has been leased to the Guard “since at least the 1950s,” according to the suit.
Burlington City Attorney Dan Richardson declined to comment on the specifics of the suit, including whether the city should be held liable for the actions of the Guard.
“I can say that the City, working with its partners and representatives, is engaged with counsel for the Belter family and has begun working through the complicated, legal, factual, and procedural issues posed by this situation,” Richardson wrote in an email.
Aaron Sutton, an employee of an environmental firm, testing a well outside the Air National Guard base in 2019.
Joselson has significant experience in environmental litigation. Her firm, Langrock Sperry & Wool, represents a number of Bennington area residents who are seeking compensation from Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. The company owned a former Teflon coating plant believed to be responsible for that contamination, first discovered in 2016.
Joselson said Burlington remains liable for the damages caused by its lessee, even though the city didn't directly cause the contamination. She likened it to a building owner subcontracting out the snowplowing of a parking lot to a company that bungles the job.
“You have delegated the duty to do the snow plowing to them, but you haven’t delegated away your legal duty to provide safe access,” Joselson said.
The Air Guard's firefighters respond to fires involving any aircraft at the airport, civilian or military. Farming that responsibility out to the Air Guard was the city's choice, she said.
"If the airport is a benefit to the city, then the costs of their operations should be borne by the city, and not shifted unfairly to an individual family farmer,"
Correction, October 26, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified the entity that installed the treatment system on Belter's well.