Senate gives green light to medical monitoring bill, but Scott is lukewarm

Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion. File photos by Erin Mansfield and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For the third time in four years, the Vermont Senate has thrown its support behind a medical monitoring bill for victims of toxic chemical exposure, but Gov. Phil Scott has not decided whether he’ll back it. 

S.113, which the Senate preliminarily approved Wednesday afternoon, gives people who have been exposed to toxic chemicals the explicit right to sue the responsible company for medical expenses under certain conditions so they can be tested and treated for disease. 

Jason Maulucci, the governor’s press secretary, told VTDigger the governor doesn’t believe the bill is necessary because of a recent settlement agreement that allocated $6 million toward medical expenses for victims of exposure in Bennington. 

The proposal has been lauded by environmentalists, local legislators and Bennington residents. But Scott cited concerns that such a law would impact the business community when he vetoed two similar bills in recent years.

“It appears the current bill has moved towards addressing some of his concerns,” Maulucci said in an email, “but there’s still a long way to go before it would get to his desk, so it’s too soon to say whether it would be signed.”

Residents in Bennington were exposed to PFOA — part of the chemical group PFAS — when a now-closed Teflon plant emitted chemicals through its smokestacks for years. Exposure to PFAS is known to cause thyroid and kidney cancers, heighten cholesterol levels, and pose developmental dangers for young children.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, sponsored the bill. Sears presented it and walked through its history on the Senate floor Wednesday. 

When the state established the severity of the contamination, the Agency of Natural Resources connected affected residents to municipal water. Still, that left some issues unaccounted for, such as medical monitoring and lower property values. Those were addressed in the settlement, announced last November. 

“The settlement will not guarantee that medical monitoring will be available under state law for future exposed citizens, mainly because it was a settlement and not a case,” Sears said. 

Scott, Sears said, vetoed previous bills because of uncertainty in the insurance market and “because it allegedly established a standard for medical monitoring different from any other standard used by courts across the nation.”

But in the settlement, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford “addressed whether Vermont law permits the remedy of medical monitoring, including whether a plaintiff must first suffer personal injury or illness before seeking medical monitoring as a remedy,” Sears said.

Crawford listed conditions that would allow victims to qualify for medical monitoring, he said. 

Conditions listed in the bill say the person seeking medical monitoring must be exposed to a proven toxic substance at a significantly greater rate than the general population, and it must be as a result of the company’s wrongful conduct. An increased risk of developing a serious disease must exist because of their exposure.

Crawford’s decision “noted that the choice between permitting and excluding a medical monitoring remedy for potential future illnesses is a choice between competing values,” Sears said. 

Jurisdictions that decided against medical monitoring laws were primarily concerned with the economic consequences for the business, Sears said, summarizing Crawford’s decision.

Jurisdictions that chose to allow medical monitoring laws “value the potential savings of lives that may be achieved through early detection and treatment for various illnesses,” he said.

Sears, who lives within the contaminated area in Bennington — six times the size of Central Park, he said — reminded legislators of the severe impact for people exposed to PFOA. 

“One of the witnesses in Senate Judiciary reminded us that one of the recommendations from the Department of Health was that they hold their breath while taking a shower to avoid any intake of their water,” Sears said. “Just think about that for a moment.”

Several groups expressed support for the Senate’s approval after the vote. 

“It is past time for Vermont to enact these policies, which have twice passed the House and Senate in a similar form, but were vetoed by the Governor,” Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said in a statement.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said in a statement to reporters that Vermonters “shouldn’t have to choose between outrageous out-of-pocket costs to monitor their health or waiting for symptoms of advanced disease to appear.” 

Other legislators spoke in support of the bill on the Senate floor before taking a vote, which was unanimous. Campion referenced the late North Bennington resident Sandy Sumner, who worked to raise awareness about the symptoms residents had been feeling from the smokestack emissions. Sumner had very high levels of PFAS in his blood, Campion said.

“We’ve spoken to the Senate over the past several years rather vaguely about the impacts that PFOA has had on the lives of our community members,” Campion told legislators. “But we were all struck this past summer when Sandy Sumner died at the age of 69.”

“I want to live as long as I can. I want the option of living out a natural life,” Sumner told VTDigger in 2019. “We feel like that freedom has sort of been taken away from us.”