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New bill requires tenants be notified of earlier contaminations or toxic spills

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BOSTON — There is a dangerous loophole in Chapter 21E of the Massachusetts General Laws that does not require lessors to notify lessees of any past hazardous waste or oil contaminations. In the case of Marilyn McMillan, a small business owner in the town of Ayer, her landlord failed to inform her of contamination from the toxic chemical perchloroethylene (PCE) caused by the previous tenant’s dry cleaning operation. For nearly two years the McMillans, their young son, and their employees suffered from headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Then in 2004, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Emergency Response Chief evacuated them from the building, immediately citing that the building had been deemed an imminent hazard. This left the McMillans out in the cold without a source of income.

“No one should have to endure what my family and I have endured,” said Marilyn McMillan. “We suffered unknowingly from headaches and sickness for two years. Our landlord new perfectly well that the building was dangerously contaminated with toxic chemicals and yet neglected to inform us. I want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

The McMillans have taken their experience and are moving to change the laws in the commonwealth to require landlords to notify commercial or residential tenants as well as potential lessees about any history of hazardous chemical releases on the property. The bill, filed by Sen. Pamela Resor and Rep. James Eldridge, is titled “An Act Regarding Notification of Oil and Hazardous Waste Material Release” and helps improve accountability and gives people the right to know whether their home or business may have a history of toxic contamination.

Sen. Resor, Rep. Eldridge, and McMillan were joined Monday by renowned environment attorney Jan Schlichtmann in a news conference regarding this bill. Schlichtmann, of “A Civil Action” fame, counseled McMillan on her situation and was present to show his support for this initiative.

“The right to know is the power to protect,” said Schlichtmann. “Senator Resor and Representative Eldridge are presenting a way for others to escape the hardships that Marilyn has gone through. Tenants are often the first to be exposed to toxic chemical spills and they should not be the last to know. The cost of notifying tenants is negligible while the cost of not doing this is devastating.”

“I have seen first-hand the devastating effect hazardous waste spills can have on families and communities,” said Sen. Resor. “It is a serious issue and can have long-lasting affects on the environment and an individual’s health, as with Marilyn’s case. I am just sorry that Marilyn and her family have suffered the effects of living with hazardous waste along the way.”

Investing in a residential or commercial property is often the biggest investment a person will make in their lifetime. The proposed bill adds further consumer protections so that people may make informed decisions about property investment.

“This legislation will make sure that what Marilyn McMillan and her family went through won’t happen to anyone else in Massachusetts again,” said Rep. Eldridge. “Tenants have a right to know if the properties they may rent are hazardous to their health.”

Supporters of this legislation include MassPIRG, Toxics Action Center, Massachusetts Environmental Collaborative, Clean Water Action, and the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters, among others.

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