A bill that would change the way Vermont regulates the toxic chemicals found in some household products has come under heavy fire from business interests in the state. And some legislators fear the proposal would be a jobs killer.
Hours before the Vermont Senate began debating the controversial consumer protection bill, a group of firefighters gathered in the Statehouse to explain why they think the legislation is so important.
“My members go to work every day and understand the inherent risks that we face as firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. However we’ve drawn a line in the sand saying ‘no’ to harmful and unnecessary chemicals in consumer products,” said Ben O’Brien, a South Burlington firefighter and the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont.
“We see far too many firefighters leaving our profession with occupational illness, and it’s time to lead on this issue and remove these harmful chemicals from Vermont,” he said.
The presence of toxic chemicals in flame retardants is of particular concern to O’Brien’s group. But the bill under consideration in Montpelier would heighten regulatory oversight of substances found in a broad array of consumer goods.
The legislation changes the rules entirely around the regulation of toxic chemicals. It would give the Department of Health new authority to ban certain chemicals outright, or require manufacturers to affix warning labels to products.
By a count of 18-12, the Senate Wednesday evening advanced the legislation. But business interests say the bill is more far reaching than anything on the books elsewhere in the United States. And they say it opens the door to the banning of chemicals even if there’s no scientific evidence to prove they’re harmful.
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, says the bill would deal a blow to Vermont’s already struggling manufacturing sector. Sears has received letters expressing concerns about the bill from three companies in his district, including Energizer and Mack Molding Company.
“I’m concerned about the jobs, I’m concerned about the precedent that we set here that the Legislature would no longer be in charge of deciding what materials to ban, rather it leaves it to some unelected bureaucrats,” Sears says.
Lauren Hierl has spearheaded the toxics legislation for the Vermont Public Research Interest Group. She says the Department of Health is a better venue for vetting concerns about chemicals than the Statehouse.
“To really have those kind of scientists driving this process instead of politics will be refreshing,” Hierl said.
But industry interests say that by adopting the most aggressive regulatory framework in the nation, Vermont risks the stability of businesses that will have to operating under it.
Andy Hackman is a spokesman for the Toy Industry Association, a trade group that has 35 business members in Vermont. He says big businesses have the resources to navigate heavier regulation.
“But for small companies like Vermont Teddy Bear Company and others that are based in state, this could be a significant negative impact,” Hackman says.
Sears says he’s all for the regulation of substances found in things like children’s toys or food containers. But he and Hackman say the bill would regulate products not traditionally covered by the state. And they say the it would allow chemicals to be banned simply because they leave behind traces in the environment, and not because they’re suspected of causing harm in humans.
In a letter to Sears, Marc Colety, director of procurement for Mack Molding Company, says he worries the bill would lead to the “banning of certain chemicals and substances without sufficient scientific evidence.” He says the bill would likely create “additional costs associated with doing business in Vermont,” and “creates disincentives for business to manufacture in Vermont.”
Colety says the bill could also lead to litigation against the state.
Rutland Sen. Kevin Mullin, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, says the concerns are unfounded. He says the legislation aims to regulate only those chemicals for which state officials have found compelling evidence of harm.
“This is not a witch hunt at all on any business in the state of Vermont,” Mullin says. “This is just about identifying which products are hazardous to humans, and if they can cause harm to humans in the form of cancer or other very serious diseases, then we should be banning them.”
The Shumlin administration has begun to voice concerns about the department’s ability to administer the new regulatory duties. And business interests are beginning to ramp up opposition to a bill they say would drive up operating costs and create enormous uncertainty for local manufacturing companies.