State lawmakers are poised to take on Gov. Phil Scott over his veto of a bill designed to ensure companies that expose Vermonters to toxic chemicals will pay the long-term costs of monitoring their health.
The Senate Judiciary Committee informally voted 3-2 Wednesday to recommend that the Senate override Scott’s June veto of the controversial legislation.
Committee chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said the protections in the bill are informed by the experiences of the hundreds of residents of his district who for years unwittingly drank groundwater contaminated by PFOA compounds from a former fabric coating plant.
“I want to make sure Vermonters don’t have to go through what the people are Bennington went through and are still going though,” Sears said after the vote.
Business groups initially argued that the bill would have made it difficult for companies to obtain insurance and would have sowed confusion by creating rules inconsistent with those of other states.
Scott, a Republican and former owner of a construction company, was swayed by such concerns.
“If Vermont manufacturers and others cannot secure insurance or cover claims, then our economy will weaken, jobs will be lost, tax revenue will decline and, ultimately, all Vermonters lose,” Scott wrote in his June veto letter.
Since then, a federal judge has sided with a group of Bennington-area residents suing the owner of the former plant, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. In a precedent-setting ruling, the judge found that the plaintiffs did have the right to sue for medical monitoring expenses.
That decision has generated confusion. Environmental advocates cheered it as a step toward holding polluters accountable. Business groups have argued the bill is either no longer necessary or should be rewritten to conform to the ruling.
“We’ve been trying to better understand precisely how [the ruling and S.37] differ in terms of the protections afforded to people who are poisoned,” Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said Tuesday.
Sears said a majority of his committee reasoned that it was better to try to override the governor’s veto because S.37 contains a host of measures that would protect farmers, municipalities that run or have run landfills, and small businesses.
Without the bill, those entities continue to face such liability, he said. And reworking the bill based on a court ruling is problematic because the case might not be resolved for three to five years, Sears said.
Nineteen senators voted in favor of the bill, which means only one more would be needed to override the veto in the Senate.
"I think we'll get at least one vote, maybe two," Sears said.
Warren Coleman, a lobbyist with the firm MMR, said he couldn’t understand why senators seem intent on a showdown with the governor instead of opting for a compromise that incorporates the judge's ruling.
Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said Scott’s veto should be overridden because all S.37 does is give people exposed to chemicals a clear and fair way to hold polluters accountable for resulting medical expenses.
Claims that the state law should align with the court ruling are specious and seem designed to muddy the waters, he said.
“I think S.37 is fair and tough, and I’m not sure why industry has laid down and opposed this so much,” Groveman said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.