Aaron Sutton, an employee of an environmental firm, testing a well outside the Air National Guard base in South Burlington
A bid to ban consumer products that contain the kind of “forever chemicals” that polluted wells in the Bennington area passed a key committee Thursday in the Vermont legislature.
S. 20 would prevent food containers, rugs and ski wax made with PFAS chemicals from being distributed and sold in the state.
The bill received lengthy testimony and debate in the House Human Services Committee, much of it involving how firefighting foam containing the chemicals should also be phased out. The foam is used at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, where it has polluted the groundwater, and by the petroleum industry.
The issue was complicated by concern that the state lacks the power to regulate the use of the foam by the Guard, which is governed by Department of Defense regulations but provides fire protection to the civilian Burlington International Airport.
Ultimately, the committee required firefighting foam used in the state to be free of such chemicals by October of 2023, with a limited one-year extension for petroleum distributors who use it for fuel fires. The date aligns with the target the Department of Defense has set for shifting to new firefighting foams.
Rep. Ann Pugh (D-Burlington) pushed back against some of the criticism, including from members of her own committee, that earlier versions of the bill contained too many exemptions for industry groups and others that opposed it. An early version proposed exemptions for the petroleum industry stretching to 2028.
“We didn’t do this for industry. We didn’t do this for the military. We didn’t do this for the rug companies or for the ski wax people. We did this to protect Vermonters,” Pugh said.
PFAS compounds are called "forever chemicals" because of how long they take to break down in the environment. The same durability that makes the chemicals effective as coatings for cookware or strengthening textiles also makes them last in the environment. After they were discovered in groundwater in Southern Vermont in 2016, subsequent state testing has found elsewhere.
Water systems, groundwater, landfill leachate and wastewater treatment plants in the state have all tested positive for PFAS chemicals, many at levels significantly higher than the 20 parts per trillion standard set by the state for drinking water.
The bill is intended to expand the state’s response from merely cleaning up the mess to preventing PFAS chemicals from being used in Vermont in the first place. The consumer products identified in the bill are those known to have high PFAS levels or — as in the case of some food packaging— a direct pathway to consumers’ bodies.
The bill is expected to get a full House vote next week, after which it would need concurrence by the Senate.