By Bill Moore
The Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce believes that every business should comply with all existing laws. We believe that all companies should be operating with strict attention to safety for their employees, the public and the environment. We are concerned, however, that a bill under consideration in the Vermont House of Representatives may impose severe future penalties on companies who are in compliance with existing law and regulations today.
The bill is S.197, an Act Relating to Liability for Toxic Substance Exposures or Releases, and it passed the Vermont Senate on a 17-13 vote. We believe that enactment of this bill could stop all future business development, business investment and business expansion, and bring the state’s growing economy to a screeching halt.
It is a clear demonstration of the effect of unintended consequences. S.197 was proposed in response to the discharge of PFOAs (perfluorooctanoic acid ) in the Bennington area. That clean-up process is underway and there are protections in place to ensure that those responsible are held accountable.
Under S.197, “toxic substance” is defined as “any substance, mixture or compound that has the capacity to produce personal illness or injury to humans through ingestion, inhalation, or absorption through any body surface” under certain conditions. The conditions include being listed on specific hazardous chemical listings. Unfortunately, a chemical that is safely used today and is not currently on those listings can be added at a later date and deemed to be toxic under the proposed legislation.
We are very concerned that the bill that creates strict liability for damage to property and human health for the intentional or unintentional release of a substance presently deemed safe but later — at no determined time in the future — deemed to be a harmful substance. Again, it is troubling that those who use substances that are deemed safe today would be held liable should those substances be deemed to be toxic at some unknown time in the future.
We are also concerned that someone who, following the constraints contained in a permit, would be liable for costs associated with medical monitoring regardless of whether or not a there is an injury or disease. This becomes even more problematic when one considers that the act is specific, that a person does not need to prove that the latent disease is certain or likely to develop as a result of the exposure. We are concerned that there is no measure of how much exposure the individual had to the hazardous substance that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that they are at risk of disease.
I have spoken with insurance underwriters who have told me that these conditions will make it virtually impossible to obtain insurance for companies that use chemicals in their normal operations. Lenders have told me the same thing regarding financing.
In short, enactment of S.197 could have a chilling effect on any future business development, business investment or business expansion in Vermont.
We believe that enactment of S.197 will cause an unfair, undue burden on those who today are acting in a lawful permitted way, who are acting in a manner allowed by the state, and who are acting pursuant to current statutes and regulations.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.