Shumlin signs bill giving state more power to pursue polluters

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Photo Gallery | Governor Shumlin visits North Bennington to sign H.595

Video | Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks to the village of North Bennington about the PFOA crisis

NORTH BENNINGTON — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill during a visit to the village on Wednesday that gives the state more power to hold polluters accountable.

The new law also aims to protect Vermonters against hazardous chemicals like PFOA, which has contaminated over 200 private wells around the village.

Shumlin said he was in high school in the mid-1970s when the federal government first implemented its policy on toxic substances. That law grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals that were never tested, Shumlin said. And of the 80,000 chemicals currently registered with the EPA, very few have been tested for their affects on human health.

"We shouldn't be surprised that we are here now, many years later," Shumlin said, addressing a crowd at the North Bennington train depot.

A smarter approach is needed, he said, "so we don't use Vermonters as guinea pigs for chemicals that could adversely affect their health and welfare."

Shumlin called the PFOA situation as an "unfortunate wake-up call exposing vulnerabilities in the decades-old federal system," and that Vermont will not wait for the federal government to fix it.

"An act relating to potable water supplies from surface waters" was first proposed by state Rep. Robert Krebs, D-South Hero and includes amendments from local State Senators Brian Campion and Dick Sears. Campion and Sears were among the local legislators in attendance Wednesday.

The new law gives the Agency of Natural Resources the power to request information from companies — like what chemicals they use at their Vermont facilities — if a release is suspected. The state previously had to file a lawsuit, ANR Secretary Deborah Markowitz said. ANR will also be able to assess damages to responsible parties.

A working group will study the use of hazardous chemicals across the state and draft new regulations that protect citizens from those chemicals. The group will submit recommendations on reducing exposure of toxic chemicals in the environment to the legislature by January 2017. ANR will submit draft rules around natural resources damages by contamination by February 2017.

It's been just over three months since the potentially harmful chemical PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, was found in private drinking water wells in Bennington and the village of North Bennington. It was used when making Teflon and has been linked to cancers and other diseases. Environmental officials say the Saint-Gobain Corporation, a successor of the former ChemFab company, is potentially responsible.

While officials are looking to prevent future environmental incidents, residents are still feeling the effects from PFOA.

Laurie Mulhern, a Bennington resident whose well was contaminated with PFOA, said she paid out of pocket to refill her swimming pool. She didn't want to risk her family accidentally consuming it, she said. And there's other expenses her and other families are incurring, she told Shumlin.

The issue also affected local businesses, including a new distillery. Alexis Lorenz is co-owner of Spirits of Old Bennington at the former Vermont Tissue Factory. She said they had to throw away their first batch of rum after discovering it was made with well water containing PFOA.

Any PFOA in the water, she noted, would not make it through the distillation process. She said they've since made a new batch using well water treated with a filtration system.

"But we were not willing to release the product knowing that we started with water containing PFOA," she said.

Shumlin's advise to Mulhern and others: Keep track of any water-related, out of pocket expenses, he said.

A class action lawsuit filed against Saint-Gobain seeks millions in damages for residents. And a citizen advisory group, working in cooperation with the public health and environmental nonprofit organization Toxics Action Center, is seeking a meeting with company representatives.

Officials are looking to a more long-term solution: Connecting homes and businesses with the town or village's municipal water systems, neither of which are contaminated by PFOA.

Two engineering reports estimate extending municipal water mains for the Bennington and North Bennington systems would cost $13.7 million and $3.2 million, respectively. The state is in talks with Saint-Gobain about how the projects would be payed for.

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979


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