chemical photo

Former ChemFab Corp. operations in Bennington involved coating fiberglass fabric with liquid Teflon and drying it at high temperature. The state determined years later that chemical contamination emanated from the exhaust stacks and polluted soil and groundwater and hundreds of wells. Vermont is poised to enact legislation that was spurred by the pollution discovered here in 2016.

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BENNINGTON — Long-sought legislation to allow access to medical monitoring for those exposed to toxic chemicals through industrial or other contamination is expected to be signed this week by Gov. Phil Scott.

Different versions of the Senate bill S.113 have passed the Legislature but both were vetoed in past sessions by Scott, who cited concerns it would discourage businesses from locating or expanding in Vermont.

The current bill, originally sponsored by Democratic Bennington County Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, was supported by the area legislative delegation. The prime impetus for the bill was the discovery in 2016 of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) — primarily perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — in hundreds of drinking water wells in a wide swath of towns around two former ChemFab Corp. factories.

“We received the bill on Friday so have until Thursday evening to take action,” said Scott’s press secretary Jason Maulucci in an email Monday. “We got a bundle of legislation at the end of last week, so our standard legal review will likely take the full time allotted for them all. But, as the governor has said, barring any unforeseen technical issues during review, he intends to sign it into law.”

Scott previously expressed concerns about the level of liability he believed companies would have been exposed to with earlier versions of the legislation.

The current bill primarily makes it easier for those exposed to toxic chemicals to have long-term medical monitoring paid for by the entity responsible for releasing the chemicals into the environment.

Another significant component of S.113 is that it would allow the state to sue manufacturers using chemicals that have caused harm to natural resources and seek compensation to help clean up pollution from water supply systems, groundwater, lakes and streams.

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CLASS ACTION SUIT

In the absence of such legislation, a group of Bennington area residents filed suit in May 2016 against corporate giant Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which was the last owner of record of the ChemFab plants here and deemed the responsible party for the groundwater contamination by the state. The class-action suit took five years, and the plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from at least three different firms. But supporters of S.113 hope people exposed to chemicals will now have a more direct path to sue for medical monitoring costs.

The Saint-Gobain suit, which resulted in a settlement agreement last fall providing $34.15 million in damages, included up to $6 million for medical monitoring costs of individuals who drank contaminated water and were found to have elevated levels of PFOA in their blood. Those levels typically go down only slowly over many years.

PFOA was widely used for decades to manufacture products like Teflon, which ChemFab used to coat fiberglass fabric, such as for sports domes. PFOA and related industrial compounds have been linked to various cancers and conditions like high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

More that 500 individuals were found through an initial round of blood tests to have elevated levels of PFAS in their blood, suit attorneys said after the settlement agreement was announced. The agreement is now headed toward final approval in U.S. District Court.

In a news release issued last week, Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said, “S.113 is a crucial piece of legislation that will hold polluters accountable for the damage they have caused. It is long overdue for Vermont to act in support of families and communities who should not bear the financial burden of corporate wrongdoing.”

In the release, Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, said, “At the end of the day, this bill is about fairness — it’s about holding companies responsible for the harm they cause. After twice vetoing similar bills, I hope Governor Scott finally signs this bill into law.”

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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