The discovery of high levels of a suspected carcinogen in private water supplies in Bennington and beyond has lawmakers questioning the adequacy of regulations that are supposed to protect Vermonters from toxic substances.
State officials first detected troubling levels of a chemical known as PFOA in the ground water nearby a former manufacturing plant in North Bennington. Since then they’ve tested more than 200 water supplies, many of them private wells, and found 100 to contain PFOA concentrations in excess of the state advisory levels.
“I would liken it to a window opening, that suddenly people are aware that, whoa, I thought I was protected and they’re finding out that in fact they are not,” says Westminster Rep. David Deen, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.
The opening of that window has seen key committees turn a sudden focus on the state and federal regulations that regulate toxic substances.
“I think PFOA, we’re realizing, could be the tip of the iceberg for more chemicals that have been dumped in landfills in the past,” says Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.
State officials have begun testing water supplies near manufacturing facilities across the state where PFOA — used in everything from Teflon coating to firefighting foam — might have been used.
Campion says the first order of business is to make sure that the Agency of Natural Resources has the authority, and the means, to monitor drinking supplies that might have been contaminated by current or former industrial activity.
Campion says lawmakers also need to make sure the state has the tools needed to hold polluters responsible.
“How do we as a state and how do the people of the state recoup costs and really hold polluters responsible for these kinds of things?” Campion says.
Campion says authority to hold polluters accountable generally falls to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“What we’re hoping to do is give the state agency more authority so it doesn’t have to get to the EPA,” Campion says. “And in the long run, I think it’ll help the state react much more quickly, as well as save money.”
It isn’t the only proposal in the pipeline. Lawmakers are considering a move that would give individual citizens the ability to file civil suits against manufacturers they believe have contaminated water supplies — currently only the state has standing to file enforcement actions.
Deen says he wants to find ways to make water testing more accessible and affordable for homeowners. With limited time left in the 2016 session, Deen says he expects many of the proposals to be held over until next year, especially if Congress doesn’t strengthen toxics regulations in the interim.
“We want to start building an agenda toward next year to be able to put the state in a position to say, ‘look, the feds aren’t doing it, we need to protect ourselves.’”
Trey Martin, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, says the state’s ability to identify problem locations, and to hold perpetrators responsible, hinges on access to information. His agency is looking for new ways to extract from companies information related to what chemicals are being used in the manufacturing process.
“And we think this is critical, because anytime there’s a cleanup action, it can be very difficult to find who is the responsible party, who should be at the table helping to pay for the cost of clean up,” Martin says.
Martin says the evolution of federal statute is also a critical factor. Congress is in the process of updating the federal Toxics Substance Control Act, and Martin says state officials are working with the Vermont’s congressional delegation to make sure states retain their ability to regulate chemicals.
Right now, the federal legislation doesn’t pre-empt states’ abilities to regulate chemicals they deem problematic. The House is drafting a joint resolution to Congress urging it to keep it that way.
Bill Driscoll, vice president of Associated Industries of Vermont, says it’s important that small states like Vermont not get into the business of trying to make a determination about the relative safety of specific chemicals. Driscoll says that job is best left to the federal government, which has the resources to undertake that kind of analysis.
“There really is no reasonable way for a smaller state to afford to be able to do a good job at that level,” Driscoll says.
Driscoll also says the state needs to weigh the impact of other proposals. Giving private citizens the ability to file enforcement actions, for example, would add expense and hassle to a process he says is best left to professional regulatory agencies.
Driscoll says the manufacturing industry is ready to work with state regulators to improve certain protocols. Martin says it’s important that they’re at the table.
“These are pretty complicated complex issues that affect both environmental health and human health but also the stream of commerce in the state and the state’s economy,” Martin says. “What we’d like to do … is be part of a really robust summer work group that thinks about how we want to manage these issues going forward.”
Lauren Hierl is the director of Vermont Conservation Voters and has worked for years in Montpelier on toxics regulations. Hierl says the state needs to do a better job identifying where contamination might have occurred. And she says it needs ways to make that information available to residents.
“It’s hard even as a professional advocate to find information about which chemicals are being used in which sites and that kind of basic stuff, so people can know potential risks to their water,” Hierl says.
Hierl says the PFOA discoveries should light a fire under efforts to strengthen toxics regulations.
“Seeing it in people’s drinking water really brought a new focus to the issue and new concerns about how we’re being exposed to these chemicals,” she says.
This post was edited at 10:33 a.m. on 4/11/16 to correct the name of the organization at which Lauren Hierl is director