Brian Shupe: In veto of toxics bill, Scott put the interests of industry before children

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Brian Shupe, who is executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

Last week Governor Scott surprised the Legislature and public health and environmental advocates by vetoing S.103, a bill that would do two simple and important things: Ensure Vermonters have safe drinking water by requiring that new wells be tested for certain toxic contaminants; and protect children by fixing a program that addresses chemicals of high concern in children’s products.

S.103 was developed to address gaps in protections for Vermonters from toxic pollution that were revealed following the discovery of PFOA contamination of drinking water in Bennington. The bill had worked its way through the Legislature for two years. It was reviewed by several House and Senate committees and passed by both bodies twice with support from across the political spectrum.

At no time did the Governor indicate he would veto S.103. It was not on the list of bills that the Governor raised concerns about just three weeks ago. In fact, during the Legislature’s review of the bill, Agency of Natural Resources staff worked with the lawmakers and advocates, including VNRC, to shape the drinking water protection provisions of the bill.

All this begs the question: why did the Governor change course and veto this well-vetted bill designed to protect Vermonters from toxic pollution?

The Governor’s stated reasons for vetoing the bill only add to the confusion. He claimed this week that he vetoed the bill because “We’re already doing most of what they want by executive order, and by legislation that was passed in 2014, and for them to turn it around and complicate matters isn’t something that all of us would accept, and certainly not our economy.” This statement is simply not true.

The executive order the Governor is referring to established an interagency committee to evaluate the effectiveness of some of Vermont’s programs to regulate toxic chemicals. It does not require the testing of drinking water supplies for toxics, nor does it improve the effectiveness of the chemicals of high concern to children program — which is the core of what S.103 does.

The Governor’s claim that the bill will hurt the economy is spurious at best. How does requiring testing of new wells for toxics, which the Governor’s own environmental agency agreed to, or improving an existing program that aims to regulate the use of toxic chemicals in children’s products, hurt the economy? Vermont restricts toxics like lead, mercury, phthalates, flame retardants, and BPA in children’s products, and there has never been any evidence of harm to our economy –- only reassurance that we know our children are being exposed to fewer chemicals linked to cancers, infertility, behavioral disorders, and other health problems.

To be clear, S.103 does not ban a single chemical from use in Vermont. It does not add a single chemical to a list of toxic chemicals in Vermont. It does not ban or regulate a single product in Vermont. The bill fixes a system for evaluating whether these types of actions should be taken in the future by allowing the state’s health commissioner to initiate rulemaking to regulate a product if the Commissioner finds any of the following:

There is a known toxic chemical that poses health risks to children,

It is present in a product intended for use by children,

Children will potentially be exposed to the toxin from the product, and

There has been consultation with a diverse working group, including scientists and industry representatives.

If the health commissioner makes all these findings (based on independent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence), and then determines he or she wants to pursue a proposal to reduce Vermont children’s exposure to toxic chemicals, the proposal then would go through the normal and rigorous rulemaking process, where plenty of public input and legislative engagement would be required. This hardly seems like an irresponsible process that would harm our economy and result in too many regulations to reduce our children’s exposure to toxic chemicals

The Governor’s veto is concerning not only because it could stop good policy from becoming law, but also because there are a number of other policies being developed in response to the weaknesses in our toxic laws revealed by the harm caused by PFOA contamination in Bennington. S.103 is a reasonable common-sense step to start addressing our vulnerabilities.

The veto of S.103 makes us wonder if there is any policy Governor Scott will support to address toxic pollution if the unsubstantiated concerns of some industry groups will be enough for him to veto a bill. Most industries oppose additional regulation. At the end of the day this is the only reason we can see as to why Governor Scott vetoed S.103. He sided with industry lobbyists that opposed the mere possibility of additional regulations to protect Vermont children. If he continues to make this choice, we can anticipate more vetoes of responsible legislation and no progress on protecting Vermonters from toxic pollution while Phil Scott is Governor.