By Brian Shupe
The recent revelations that wells and groundwater in North Bennington and Pownal have been contaminated by the toxic chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid – commonly referred to as PFOA – are extremely disturbing.
Vermonters take pride in the high quality of our environment and natural resources. We are not used to worrying that hazardous waste may threaten the safety of our drinking water. No Vermonter should have to fear that something as fundamental as the water from their tap is not safe to drink.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) has responded quickly and effectively to the communities affected by the PFOA contamination. ANR continues to help affected residents deal with the loss of their drinking water supply, and is responding to concerns about the impact of the PFOA contamination on their health and local environment.
While ANR’s response has been admirable, it has revealed gaps in the tools the state has on hand to respond to releases of hazardous waste. It has also exposed gaps in the information available to communities to allow them to understand and evaluate the risk of contamination of wells and groundwater supplies in the vicinity of facilities where hazardous waste or toxic substances are being used, or have been used in the past.
VNRC has been working with the Vermont Legislature to begin to address these shortcomings by advocating for the passage of House Bill 595 (H.595). H.595, as it was passed out of the House of Representatives in March, was a relatively narrow bill related to the ability of private homeowners to use surface waters as a potable water supply.
The version of the bill passed the Senate last week, however, included four key provisions added to help Vermont prevent, detect, and respond to the type of contamination we have seen in North Bennington and Pownal.
The legislation enables ANR to obtain information about a release or threatened release of hazardous waste as soon as possible in order to understand the potential source and impacts of the contamination so a response to help affected communities can be put into action.
The legislation also requires water quality testing when new wells are drilled to provide basic information about the safety of the well water. This information not only informs well owners about what is in their water, it informs ANR about potential groundwater contamination in the vicinity of the well.
While a good first step, VNRC is advocating that testing of existing wells also be required when residential homes are sold. This will protect homebuyers, and provide additional information to ANR about potential groundwater problems in communities across the state.
The bill would also authorize ANR to assess “natural resource damages.” This is an important tool that allows the state government to assess the impact of releases of hazardous materials on natural resources that are part of the public trust – water, wildlife, public lands – and determine what is necessary to restore the affected resources to their original condition.
Natural resource damages statutes allow the state to collect compensation for the public for the loss of the opportunity to use and enjoy these public trust resources. For many years the federal government – through federal environmental laws – has used this tool to great effect.
Over 30 states also have state-level natural resource damages programs – including states as diverse as Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. It is past time for Vermont to add this essential tool to our toolbox so we can better protect and restore public trust resources like our groundwater.
Finally, the H.595 establishes a working group to examine the information ANR is collecting regarding the use of hazardous waste and toxic substances at facilities in Vermont, what information is available to communities, how are we using this information to protect drinking water supplies and groundwater, and what can be done to improve our ability to protect Vermont communities from crises like the one occurring in North Bennington and Pownal.
VNRC is hopeful that the Legislature will enact all of these important provisions in H.595 this year. It will be a good start to better protecting our drinking water, groundwater and the health and well being of all Vermonters.