Public health advocates say the discovery of a toxic chemical in private drinking wells in southern Vermont last year exposes shortcomings in state regulatory oversight. But an effort to bolster consumer protections fell short in the Legislature this year.
Back on May 10, shortly before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn, lawmakers encountered an odd spectacle as they made their way into the Statehouse.
The 15-foot tall baby bottle was held aloft thanks to a fan powered by a whirring generator. Advocates said the massive prop signifies the population most at risk from toxic contaminants in water, food and manufactured goods.
“Imagine that your phone rings, and you learn that the water coming out of the tap in your home, the water you’ve drank, given to your children, bathed in cooked with and brushed your teeth with, contains a known toxic chemical,” Lauren Hierl, political director for Vermont Conservation Voters, said at a press conference that day.
Hierl says that’s precisely what happened to hundreds of Vermonters last year after dangerous levels of a chemical called PFOA were found in private drinking wells.
“We can’t afford to wait another year to protect our children and all Vermonters, and that’s why we’re here today to urge the Vermont Senate to pass legislation this year that takes several important steps to protect Vermont families from toxic chemicals,” Hierl said.
The press event was a last ditch effort by Hierl and other advocates to compel passage of legislation that would, among others things, require testing for certain chemicals in new drinking wells.
The effort was not successful.
“I know it’s disappointing to people at this point to slow down, but we’re talking about important law with long-term consequences,” says Addison County Sen. Chris Bray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources.
It isn’t the well-testing provisions that concern Bray. Rather, it’s language added by House lawmakers, he says, that gave legislators in the Senate pause.
The House additions to the bill would have given the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health unilateral authority to ban or restrict the use of toxics in products made for kids.
Bray says it might well be a worthy policy reform. But he says the House proposal arrived on Senate lawmakers’ desks literally days before the session’s end.
“We owe it to everyone to slow down and take proper testimony before we’re going to pass a major bill with health and welfare implications, with legal implications,” Bray says.
Among the people sounding the alarm over those implications is Bill Driscoll, the vice-president of Associated Industries of Vermont.
A 2014 law created new oversight framework for children’s products. Decisions about whether to ban or restrict certain chemicals used in manufactured goods used to fall to the Legislature. The 2014 law handed that authority to a working group.
Driscoll says his organization was concerned enough about that change.
“To give the commissioner that kind of discretion to start regulating products without any legislative involvement, and without any other broader stakeholder involvement, would be giving way too much discretionary authority to that department,” Driscoll says.
Westminster Rep. David Deen is the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, the committee that wants to give those new powers to the health commissioner. Deen says the working group that was supposed to weigh in on toxics regulations hasn’t met since it was created two and a half years ago. And he says there will be plenty of checks on the power of any health commissioner that seeks to institute a chemical ban.
“I think that’s being overlooked or maybe misrepresented in some way, that all of a sudden we have this rogue commissioner. Well, a governor’s not going to put up with a rogue commissioner, whoever it is,” Deen says.
Deen and Bray say they’re confident the House and Senate will reach agreement on a bill in 2018. Advocates like Hierl say the Legislature’s failure to pass a law this year means more Vermonters may be exposed to toxics in the meantime.