U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Vermont Mercury Label Law

06/12/02 12:00AM By John Dillon
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(Host) Vermont has won a key legal victory as it tries to force companies to label products that contain mercury. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an industry group's appeal of the Vermont labeling law.

VPR's John Dillon has more.


(Dillon) Many electrical products contain mercury. It's used in fluorescent lights, thermostats, batteries, even in the headlights of some cars. But even in tiny amounts, mercury can be a potent poison. It's especially dangerous for babies and young children.

Because of these dangers, the Legislature four years ago required warning labels for products that use the metal. The law also made it illegal to dispose of these products in landfills. Michael Bender of the Mercury Policy Project in Montpelier explains the reasoning behind Vermont's law:

(Bender) "I think first of all, the only way we can keep mercury out of the food and the fish we eat is to keep it out of the global environment."

(Dillon) Most manufacturers worked with the state to comply with the statute. But an industry group representing lamp companies such as General Electric and Sylvania appealed. The lamp companies were represented by the Washington-based National Electric Manufacturers Association. Bender says they raised legal and financial concerns:

(Bender) "They argued before the court that their lamps are manufactured for the national market and not the local market. And they really presented as an argument that ... it was ridiculous for Vermont to, quote 'purport to dictate to worldwide lamp requirements.'"

(Dillon) A federal judge agreed with the industry. The court ruled that the Vermont law was probably unconstitutional and that it imposed an undue expense on industry. The state appealed, and won. A federal appeals court in New York City struck down the lower court injunction.

But the legal battle didn't end there. The industry group asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. On Monday, the high court refused. That means the challenge to the Vermont law is effectively over.

Chris Recchia is Vermont's environmental conservation commissioner. He says Vermont led the way with what could become national labeling policy:

(Recchia) "This is of national significance: to essentially overcome all the lobbying and support that the lamp manufacturers brought to bear here to simply get a consumer information item out there. We think that when people are informed that these products contain mercury, that they'll manage them properly and chose among those that have less mercury than others."

(Dillon) Recchia says the state has given the companies until December to come up with a plan to put the warnings on their products.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon.

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