MONTPELIER — The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that will force those responsible for contaminating water supplies with a specific chemical to cover the cost of extending municipal water lines to impacted areas.
The bill, S.10, was passed unanimously on a voice vote Tuesday and will now head to the House. It requires those who release perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, into the air, groundwater, surface water or soil to be liable for the costs of extending water supply lines from a public water system to impacted properties.
The secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources would have to determine a potable water supply on a property contains perfluorooctanoic acid or is likely to become contaminated.
The bill was sponsored by Sen. Dick Sears and Sen. Brian Campion of Bennington County after PFOA was found in Bennington and North Bennington around a former factory now owned by Saint- Gobain Performance Plastics.
The PFOA contamination is believed by state environmental officials to have originated from the factory that was previously owned by Chemfab to produce nonstick coatings.
Campion said the bill was prompted by the discovery of PFOA in Bennington, but is intended to help communities around the state where the chemical has since been found. He said about a dozen sites in Vermont are known to be contaminated by PFOA.
“I’m optimistic that it’s going to set us up in the future to protect all Vermonters,” Campion said after the vote. “I’m also hopeful that we can come to a settlement with Saint-Gobain sooner rather than later. Although this legislation isn’t directed at anyone in particular, it’s built off of a bad experience in Bennington and I’m hopeful that we’ve prepared the rest of the state to deal with it effectively if this were to continue.”
Saint-Gobain spokeswoman Dina Pokedoff offered a brief statement Tuesday.
“ Saint- Gobain Performance Plastics is aware that bill S.10 in Vermont passed the third reading in the Senate today and will be placed on the House calendar. We are assessing the bill in its current form,” she said.
Passage in the Senate comes as state officials are negotiating with Saint-Gobain over extending municipal water lines in North Bennington. The cost is estimated to be about $30 million. The company has balked at the request, however, and has filed suit against the state, challenging a state health rule that sets the acceptable level of PFOA in water at 20 parts per trillion.
The company has agreed to provide water filter systems to impacted residents. But it is clear the relationship between the state and the company is fraying. Sears took to the Senate floor Tuesday to note that the company has sent a summons to some of his constituents indicating they are part of the suit against the state.
“They blamed the Legislature for passing such a law. They did not need to send a notice that (the residents) were being sued. They merely needed to notify people … that the state was being sued,” Sears said.
“Seventeen of our constituents who have been affected by PFOA in their drinking water in their wells were sent notices they are being sued,” he said. “If you hear that, it’s not something that we passed in the Legislature.”
The summonses were sent to those that testified before the state Environmental Court about the state’s PFOA standard. State officials have communicated to those who received a summons that they are not being sued, despite the notice that stated “you are being sued.”
Campion said he expects the House and the administration of Gov. Phil Scott to also back the legislation.
“It’s a very heavy chemical, so sadly, it’s going to continue to sink into the soils and possibly get into the groundwater,” he said. “The overwhelming support in the Senate I certainly appreciate. … I see no reason why it wouldn’t make it all the way to the governor’s desk sooner rather than later.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, said he is not concerned that the legislation, if it becomes law, would hinder business in the state.
“I don’t think it will have chilling effect or any effect on businesses in Vermont, because I don’t know that there’s a single manufacturer or other business who would knowingly risk polluting drinking water supplies, which is really what the bill is about,” Ashe said. “The manufacturers we have here are, without exception, very conscientious.”