Scott pressed to sign toxins bill
Lawmakers, residents argue that industry should bear costs of medical monitoring for those exposed
NORTH BENNINGTON — About 30 community members and legislators gathered at Powers Market on Main Street Friday to urge Gov. Phil Scott to sign S.37, a bill that would allow Vermonters a right-to-action to access medical monitoring for diseases linked to toxic chemical exposure.
In attendance were Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, both Democrats, and Reps. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, and Timothy Corcoran II and Jim Carroll, both Democrats.
"I just want to start by reminding everyone how this started," Campion said in his opening remarks. "How hundreds of people in our community had their drinking water contaminated with PFOA showering, swimming, drinking, cooking — in short, innumerable interactions between PFOA."
Hundreds of Bennington residents were impacted by PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, contamination found in private wells in early 2016 around two former ChemFab Corp. factories that once coated fiberglass fabrics with Teflon. PFOA has also been discovered in North Bennington and Pownal.
PFOA was widely used for decades to manufacture products like Teflon, which in turn was used to coat wire, cookware, tapes and fabric. PFOA and related industrial compounds have come under growing scrutiny as an emerging health risk, linked to various cancers and other conditions like high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
"We've watched what happens when a corporate polluter harms Vermonters' health and property and then leaves us to pay the price," Campion said.
This bill, Campion said, would help people exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals get access to medical monitoring to ensure they can detect and treat diseases early. S.37 would establish a legal mechanism for victims of exposure to toxic substances to seek in court long-term medical monitoring costs from the owner or operator of a large facility from which the substance was released — provided the company has had 10 or more full-time employees.
Industry groups have strongly opposed S.37, "because the status quo of offloading these costs on others works well for them," Campion said.
Scott has expressed concerns about S.37's impact on businesses and vetoed similar legislation last year, according to a press release from the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
Sears and Campion introduced S.37 in January, along with Sen. Christopher Bray, a Democrat.
As passed by the House and Senate, it would take effect July 1. When reached via email mid-Friday afternoon, Rebecca Kelley, communications director of Scott's office, said the governor had not yet received the bill. She said the governor has said he'll need to review it before making a final determination. Once he receives the bill, he has five days to take action.
Sears, who has worked extensively on S.37, addressed the group at Powers Market Friday.
"It's hard to think that I'm here again, not only urging the governor, but begging the governor, to sign the bill," he said. "This is an important bill for Bennington County, it's an important bill for Vermont, but it's also important for the nation."
He pointed out that communities in New Hampshire and New York, are also suffering the effects of chemical contamination.
He briefly described the bill's process for those in attendance, including how the bill as passed in the Senate had a strict liability component to hold polluters liable for not only medical monitoring, but related costs like decreased home values as a result of such pollution.
That provision was taken out.
"As the bill went through its process, not only the industries fought it, but the insurance industry as well," Sears said. "They came out strongly against it."
But the bill going to Scott is very strong in terms of medical monitoring, he said.
"But as I try to understand this, try to explain it on the Senate floor and explain it to my relatives and others who haven't suffered through this, it's really fairly simple," Sears said. "It's who pays. It's really who pays."
Several community members also spoke briefly about their experiences with chemical contamination and urged Scott to sign S.37.
Bill Knight lives in a zone of contamination. He has drunk well water for about 22 years, he said.
His well has tested above accepted levels for contamination, as has his blood.
"So I'm very much concerned about my health," he said. "Not only my own health, but for all my neighbors. Those polluters should be the ones footing the bill for medical monitoring. It shouldn't be up to us Vermonters who did not have anything to do with it at all."
Sandy Sumner, who lives in North Bennington, told those in attendance how the level of PFOA in his blood is 305; his wife's is 415.
"We have two neighbors, one developed testicular cancer and one thryoid cancer," he said. "Both of these cancers are known to be related to PFOA in the blood."
He said he doesn't know the number of community members who have health issues related to PFOA, but he's sure there are many.
"Gov. Scott is threatening to veto this medical monitoring bill because he fears it would introduce needless complications for Vermont business," he said. "Because of political compromise, this bill as it stands is already weighted heavily in favor of the business community, asking victims of chemical contamination to jump through many hoops in order to earn access to medical monitoring. Still, the governor finds it too burdensome for businesses."
Those seeking medical monitoring coverage would have to go through the courts if the bill passes, Sears said.
"It's not a slam dunk," he said.
Sumner said he and his wife have to live with the threat of having their lives compromised or cut short due to PFOA-related health issues.
"I actually can't believe we have to fight for this," he said. "I wouldn't want the governor or any of his loved ones to walk in our shoes, but I have to think if he did, his perspective would be very different."
In 2008, Jim Sullivan and his wife built their home on a hill in North Bennington, just east of the ChemFab building. They put everything they had into the home, expecting it would be a great place to live and a good investment.
But several years later, PFOA contamination was found in the area, and subsequent testing found high concentrations in their water, and their bodies.
The cost of medical monitoring is substantial, especially for people like him, he said, who have high-deductible health plans.
Coleen Healy, an educator and parent, said her family had the highest levels of contamination in their well.
"Raising two children with that water has left a lot of stressors in our lives, as well as our neighbors," she said. "It's imperative that the corporations are held accountable, specifically for the medical part, because the medical part is where we really can find our solace in, if in fact we can heal from this tragic thing that happened. The governor has to sign this bill."
The bill also amends Vermont law to hold those who manufactured a hazardous material for commercial sale liable for abating a release or threatened release of that material, along with the costs of investigation, removal and remedial actions incurred by the state to protect public health or the environment.
The provision requires that person knew, or should have known, that the material presented a threat of harm to human health or the environment.
"That was an important change," Sears said of the provision holding manufacturers liable.
Jon Groveman, policy and water program director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, agreed.
"We're starting to see now, after decades, that the core may be the people [manufacturing chemicals]," he said. "I think the thought is, what responsibility do these chemical manufacturers have?"
Throughout the country, it's been found that manufacturers knew about the dangers of PFOA, but they didn't tell people that, Groveman said.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.