[T]he Senate has approved a bill that could force polluters who release toxins into the environment to pay the costs of medical monitoring for Vermonters harmed by the substances.
The bill, S.197, was written by Bennington’s two senators in response to the poisoning of hundreds of Bennington residential wells with the industrial toxicant perfluorooctanoic acid. The PFOA contamination has been attributed to the former Teflon-products manufacturer, ChemFab.
Those Bennington residents, who learned of the poisoning in 2016, are still in court seeking to force ChemFab’s parent company, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, to pay for monitoring that can detect maladies caused by the pollution.
A line item in this year’s state budget appropriates $200,000 to pay some portion of the medical costs to monitor affected Bennington residents for illnesses associated with chronic PFOA exposure.
The two senators who drafted the bill, Democrats Brian Campion and Dick Sears, say the company responsible for the toxic pollution should be footing that bill instead of taxpayers.
Had the law been in place when Bennington residents found out their wells had been tainted, Campion said, those residents who have been harmed would not be fighting a protracted and uncertain legal battle to hold Saint-Gobain responsible for the medical monitoring they will now require.
“People really wish it had been in place before what happened down there, happened,” Campion said.
However, Sen. David Soucy, R-Rutland, urged his colleagues to vote against the bill, citing what he termed an ominous letter he received from a national insurance industry group.
“I, too, am concerned about the release of toxic chemicals here in Vermont, and we need to do everything we can to protect our citizens,” Soucy said. But “the business community is very concerned about this bill,” he said.
In the letter, Soucy said, the association warned the legislation “would negatively impact the business community and could have a chilling effect on Vermont’s economy.”
He said it described a scenario in which Vermont judges might approve unlimited medical monitoring for diseases not even proven to result from toxic pollution.
Soucy was appointed to his Senate seat last year to fill a vacancy created when Kevin Mullin stepped down to chair the Green Mountain Care Board.
Insurance industry representatives had earlier successfully challenged a provision in the bill — since removed — that would have eased Vermonters’ legal hurdles in seeking to recover damages when harmed by toxic chemicals.
That portion of the bill was then written into another bill, S.123, which is likely to remain in a House committee.
Sears said that although S.197 was significantly weakened without that provision, the measure still should be adopted in its current form.
At the heart of the bill was a single question, Sears said: Should polluters be responsible for medical costs when their toxic pollution harms Vermonters?
The Bennington senators and environmental groups supporting the bill pointed out the “tremendous opposition from companies” expressed by industry representatives at the Statehouse.
“Lobbyists came flying in from all over,” said Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters.
Vermonters with high levels of chemical contamination in their bodies cannot currently recover costs for expensive medical testing unless the contamination has resulted in a disease, Hierl said.
Sears said of the bill, “This is legislation that other states are looking into as well. We are not the only ones with this. I think the bill has national implications.”
Jon Groveman, the Vermont Natural Resources Council’s policy and water program director, said the bill removes “unfair barriers” residents face in attempting to recover costs for medical expenses resulting from toxic substances.
Groveman said such legislation “already exists in 15 other states and represents a first common-sense step toward ensuring that those who cause harm to our neighbors by releasing toxic chemicals are held responsible,”
Governor Phil Scott said in a March 20 letter to legislators that he opposes S.197, and said that insurance companies might respond to the bill by driving up rates for Vermonters “to the point of making the cost and availability a potentially insurmountable barrier to doing business in Vermont.”
Scott wrote that letter when the measure still included the more expansive provisions that have since been stripped out.
Campion said it’s unclear whether changes made to the bill since that time might change Scott’s opinion.
“I don’t think taxpayers should pay — the company that did the harm should pay” for medical monitoring, Campion said. “I hope, given how important it is to the state, that the governor agrees.”
Scott Latour, a spokesperson for Scott, did not respond to a request for an interview,
Reporting contributed by Jim Therrien.