PFAS-related bills edge toward passage
BENNINGTON — Several bills filed or strongly supported by Bennington lawmakers have made it through the legislative gauntlet this session, including a couple that will put Vermont in the forefront in terms of environmental protection.
Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, both Bennington Democrats, said three bills related to PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) contamination around former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington have advanced and one has been signed by Gov. Phil Scott.
Scott signed S.49, which calls for an expansion of testing for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals, or the group including PFOA, throughout the environment.
While the PFOA contamination in Bennington was found in groundwater and hundreds of wells — spread through factory stack emissions that built up in the soil — Campion said many state residents receive drinking water from Lake Champlain and other bodies of water.
The bill will require additional monitoring and testing for PFAS substances in lakes and streams and in drinking water supplies. PFOA contamination around two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington was determined by the state to be the source of widespread pollution in groundwater and several hundred local wells.
The bill, effective on July 1, also will require leachate from landfills to be tested and treated for polyfluoroalkyl substances before discharge into the waters of the state.
Campion said he is concerned about the possible spread of PFAS chemicals that remaining in wastewater plant sludge, which sometimes is spread on farm fields as fertilizer.
S.37, another bill inspired by the experience in Bennington, establishes a legal mechanism for victims of chemical pollution in water supplies to seek in court long-term medical monitoring costs from the responsible company.
The bill, filed by Sears and Campion, also began with a provision allowing companies to be held liable for release of toxic substances into the atmosphere — a provision that Scott cited as a deterrent to businesses expanding or locating in Vermont when he vetoed similar legislation last year.
The liability provision was deleted this session in the House.
Sears said the bill that passed this year — but hasn't yet been signed by the governor — "is in the long run fairly good at holding them accountable for medical monitoring."
The law establishes a clear right for Vermonters to go to court to make those determined to be polluters pay for the cost of medical testing before a person actually has a disease associated with the contamination.
Another bill related to toxic materials, S.55, was in a House-Senate conference committee in an attempt to iron out differences.
That legislation — also similar to one introduced last year, passed and vetoed by Scott — establishes the Interagency Committee on Chemical Management to strengthen reporting requirements and regulation of toxic materials and provides a role for the Department of Public Health in monitoring children's toys for safety concerns.
Another bill expanding environmental protections is S.113, which bans single-use plastic shopping bags at the point of sale and polystyrene foam packaging for take-out food has passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate.
A conference committee worked out and approved final bill details last week.
Campion said support for the legislation built up momentum throughout the session, likely fueled by a marked shift on the issue among the public following dramatic news reports about plastic products fouling the environment and collecting in the world's oceans.
Among provisions in the final version are a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags, a 10 cent fee for paper bags; a ban on polystyrene foam containers for prepared foods; a ban on eateries providing plastic drink straws unless requested by a customer; and establishment of a working group to study packaging issues over the summer and make recommendations to the Legislature.
A marijuana bill that Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored and has strongly supported, has not advanced. It would regulate retail sale and taxation for recreational marijuana, which became legal to possess last summer.
S.54, passed the Senate but became stalled in the House, in part because of a disagreement over requirements for saliva testing of motorists for marijuana use, which Scott favors.
Supporters of a tax and regulate system say the saliva tests would only show a person has used marijuana but not when or whether they were actually impaired.
"It was very discouraging," Sears said Tuesday. "I thought we had an agreement."
He added, "Now, we will send our tax money to Massachusetts [which legalized recreational pot] and the illegal market."
Sears likened the situation to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, with illegal sales of unregulated and untested alcohol in the market and smuggling of liquor from Canada and elsewhere into the U.S.
"The House keeps coming up with excuses for not supporting this," he said. "It is really absurd."
The Legislature has also passed S.40, a bill calling for testing of water taps in Vermont schools and child care centers for lead levels. The bill advanced last week after a compromise on House and Senate versions of the legislation.
A principal difference was that the House and Senate versions listed a different level of lead in the water that would trigger remediation of faucets or other fixtures deemed responsible for the contamination.
The Senate bill called for an action level of 3 parts per billion of lead, while the House version set the level at 5 parts per billion. Campion, a lead sponsor, said the compromise that advanced the bill was for 4 parts per billion.
In addition, the bill provides $3 million for testing of water taps and remediation work such as new plumbing fixtures.
The bill, which Scott is expected to sign, "is one of the strongest, if not the strongest in the country" in protecting young people from the effects of lead, Campion said.
Lead is considered especially devastating to the minds and bodies of young children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has said there is no safe level of lead in drinking water for children.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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