Climate Action

Vermont’s Superfund Act Leads by Example

Vermont just passed a trailblazing climate policy, calling out the fossil fuel industry and laying the foundation for more states to follow in their footsteps.

The Vermont Superfund Act is inspired by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program, and they share more than just a name. The EPA’s program provides the agency with the authority and funds to clean up hazardous waste sites. It was created in 1980 in response to national attention and outrage concerning the environmental and human health threats of contaminated sites. These sites include processing facilities, mining sites, and processing plants where hazardous waste was dumped, left out, or mismanaged. One of the most significant aspects of this superfund program is that it forces the parties responsible for pollution to fund the restoration and clean up of their toxic waste sites.  

Similarly, the recently passed Vermont Superfund Act aims to ensure companies responsible for intensifying the impacts of climate change are also the ones responsible for contributing to adaptive efforts and resilient infrastructure. This is a polluter-pays principle, which ensures the financial burden caused by environmental degradation falls on those who created it, rather than those living with it, ie. taxpayers. 

In July 2023, when Vermont endured record-breaking rainfall, cities like Montpelier saw both the most rainfall in a calendar day with 5.28 inches pouring down and their wettest month ever with the 12.06 inches they received breaking the previous record from 1989 by a whole 2 inches.  

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell stated “It takes just 6 inches of water for someone to be wiped off their feet, and in that water, we see a lot of debris. We see downed power lines. We see things that can cause additional damage.” 

This intense precipitation culminated in flooding that devastated many homes, roads, and businesses throughout Vermont. The state reported 4,087 homes and 839 businesses damaged by the flooding and storm in total cost the Northeast about 2.2 billion dollars. The worst hit cities in Vermont saw their lively downtown districts turned into watery ghost towns, with only an occasional canoe paddling through the streets. 

The warming temperature and increased precipitation is threatening other aspects of Vermonters’ way of life and identity as well. The Green Mountain state’s 1.6 billion dollar ski industry is suffering from the changing climate and even facing extinction. Despite the snowfall this past year reporting 15 inches above the 10-year average, snowstorms were often followed by warm weather and rain that melted the snow and ruined the conditions for the ski slopes. The Vermont Climate Assessment predicts that Vermont’s ski season could be shortened by 2 weeks to a month, and even with snowmaking, the downhill skiing sector will only remain viable until 2050. 

Taking Action

 The Vermont Superfund Act will require agencies involved in the fossil fuel industry between the years 2000-2019 to pay for the cost of recovering from and preparing for these extreme weather events. 

The “agencies” the bill targets are identified as any individual, corporation, municipality, or other legal organization that holds an interest in a fossil fuel business during the previously mentioned 19-year time period that is contributing to the greenhouse gas related costs in Vermont. 

The amount the Superfund Act will require each agency to pay will be determined by their share of the fossil fuel extraction or refinement that is impacting Vermont’s climate. Using the EPA’s Emissions Factors for Greenhouse Gas Inventories, Vermont will be able to determine the fossil fuels and therefore greenhouse gas emissions attributable to each agency. Approximately 8,000 facilities are already required to use this system to annually report their emissions to the EPA. 

The bill will also rely on Attribution Science, which has enabled researchers for the last 20 years to model the degree to which human behavior has contributed to severe weather. Andrew Parish, the vice president of a non profit conducting attribution science research, Climate Central, claims “We’re able to say very clearly, ‘We would not be experiencing these intense global temperatures without human-caused climate change and the history of carbon pollution,’” 

Those in Favor and Those Opposed

The bill passed with a super, veto-proof majority through the Vermont legislature and was heavily supported by nonprofit and conservation agencies. The Republican Governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, let the bill become a law without his signature. While he acknowledged the need to mitigate the environmental devastation being felt in the state, he advised caution in how to go about it: “Taking on ‘Big Oil’,” he said, “should not be taken lightly.” Scott fears the bill will undergo thorough examination from a wealthy defense eager to find any holes or weak spots. This could not only kill the Vermont Superfund act, but stunt the process of other similar bills being considered in other states. 

These worries are substantiated by the American Petroleum Institute’s unsurprisingly heavy opposition to the Superfund Act. The lobbying group wrote a letter to the Vermont legislature, stating their opinion that the bill unfairly blames fossil fuel companies for activities that go back decades and create energy the economy depends on. By maintaining that these climate issues are the result of “society at large,” they hope to strengthen their argument that the legislation is possibly unconstitutional and once again blame consumers. 

Won the Battle But Not the War

Despite these threats, the Vermont attorney general stated “The science linking climate change to severe weather damage is robust enough to withstand scrutiny,” affirming her readiness to defend the law and echoing confidence in attribution science. All eyes will be watching this process; it is vital this law be deemed constitutional by the courts, otherwise all the momentum and accomplishment of passing this Superfund Act will have been for nothing. 

Many other states such as Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland are looking to pass similar legislation. If Vermont’s Superfund Act can be established and workable, it has the power to create change that will reach far beyond the Green Mountains. Vermont is in a position now to help establish a legal sense of accountability for those exacerbating the already detrimental impacts of climate change, by forcing harmful corporations to put their money where their actions have been.