BOSTON — Opposition from environmental groups is holding up a bill that would ban the sale of older mercury-filled thermostats and put restrictions on their disposal with just days remaining before a new Legislature get sworn in and the process to move a bill starts again.
Environmental groups think the bill is not strong enough, and fails give the state Department of Environmental Protection the authority advocates are seeking to force improvement in how mercury thermostats are collected.
The bill would prohibit the sale and installation of mercury thermostats and create restrictions for their disposal. Mercury thermostats would only be recycled or disposed of as hazardous waste.
“We have significant concerns. The bill is essentially a Trojan horse,” said Cindy Luppi, New England director for Clean Water Action. “It looks like it would do a good thing in establishing a collection program. But we already have a volunteer collection program and it has not been effective.”
Passed by the House in August, the bill came before the Senate twice last week only to have a senator object to taking any action on the bill, which is allowed during informal sessions.
First, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, objected; then, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, blocked a vote on the bill during last Monday’s informal Senate session.
Following that delay, Sen. Marc Pacheco gave a brief speech to a mostly empty chamber warning his colleagues that failure to act before Jan. 2 could result in a another two years going by with mercury thermostats continuing to pollute water streams.
“Two years from now we will probably be in a very similar situation. This reminds me of a classic thing that goes on here once in a while. This is the perfect being the enemy of the good,” Pacheco said.
The Taunton Democrat said passing the bill now will turn voluntary collections into a mandatory program that will give lawmakers and advocates data to study and recommend improvements to the law in the future.
The Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, co-chaired by Pacheco and Rep. Anne Gobi, gave the bill a favorable recommendation this session, which ends after Jan. 1.Clean Water Action and other environmental groups, however, would like to see DEP have “explicit” authority in the collection program, giving regulations more teeth, Luppi said.
“DEP is not given authority to require improvements if, as suspected, the collection program turns out to be ineffective,” she said. Years ago, thermostats were full of mercury, but largely they have been replaced with digital models.
Older thermostats are a significant source of mercury in the solid waste stream, breaking down in landfills or burning in trash incinerators and coming back in polluted rain water, Luppi said. Under the legislation, thermostat manufacturers would be required to make collection containers available to wholesalers, retailers, contractors and local government authorities to dispose of mercury thermostats.
Manufacturers could charge a one-time $25 fee for containers. Wholesalers would be prohibited from selling thermostats unless they act as a collection site for mercury-added thermostats.
Manufacturers would be required to report mercury recycling to the DEP annually, and the DEP would report the information to the Legislature every year. Both municipal and private waste haulers would be prohibited from knowingly disposing of mercury thermostats; municipalities would be allowed to impose fines when someone disposes of them.
The bill also prohibits wholesalers and retailers from selling thermostats from manufacturers who do not comply with state mercury laws.
But several environment groups — including Clean Water Action, MassPIRG, Mass Audubon and the Sierra Club — sent a letter to senators opposing the bill, saying “it locks Massachusetts into a weak recycling program that lacks the tools needed for success and gives the state no options for improvement.”
The groups suggested the state follow laws in Maine and Vermont where manufacturers are required to provide financial incentives to contractors and others who return mercury containing thermostats.