Local lawmakers pleased with Judiciary Committee vote
By Jim Therrien
BENNINGTON — Local lawmakers say they were encouraged when the Senate Judiciary Committee this week advanced a bill that would further hold companies liable for the effects of chemical pollution on the environment and the health of Vermont residents.
Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Sears and Sen. Brian Campion, both Bennington Democrats, are sponsors of S.197, which was approved on a 4-1 committee vote Wednesday to move on to the full Senate.
The lawmakers said the bill is one of those that followed in the wake of extensive PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination of hundreds of wells in Bennington, discovered in early 2016 over a wide area around two former ChemFab Corp. plants here.
The proposal still faces stiff opposition from business groups and lobbying activity on the bill has been significant. "There is tremendous opposition to this from industry," Sears said.
The bill would cover "a major discharge of toxic material," he said Thursday, and would hold a business liable if owners "had known or should have known" the material was toxic or hazardous.
The administration of Gov. Phil Scott also voiced opposition to that provision, contending it would discourage companies from making investments and exploring new technologies.
The new legislation, the senators said, would build on another bill they sponsored last year to hold entities that have released contamination into the atmosphere responsible for the costs of providing clean water to affected properties — including through extension of municipal water lines. That bill was signed in Bennington in June by Gov. Scott.
"This bill (S.197) would not affect ChemFab," Sears said, because that pollution would predate the proposed law, "but it would send a strong message."
Another provision of the bill would hold those responsible for releasing toxic chemicals liable for long-term medical monitoring for people affected by the pollution, such as occurred in Bennington when hundreds of residents drank PFOA-laced water. Such monitoring would typically involve a court setting up of a fund for medical monitoring as part of a private lawsuit against a polluter.
Supporters contend the bill would assist private citizens harmed by such pollution in pursing litigation against a large company.
In Bennington, a suit by households affected by PFOA was filed in 2016 against Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics in U.S. District Court, seeking among other damages long-term medical monitoring costs for residents who might suffer conditions or diseases that have been associated to the chemical in medical studies. Those include certain cancers, high cholesterol and high blood-pressure.
The farming industry would be exempted from the bill, because farms are regulated through the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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