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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Shumlin Administration Under Pressure From EPA To Clean Up Lake Champlain

VPR/Peter Hirschfeld
Stephen Perkins, director of the Office of Ecosystem Protection at the EPA's Boston office, prepares to testify before a legislative committee in Montpelier Wednesday.

The federal government is threatening action against Vermont over pollution levels in Lake Champlain. But the Shumlin administration says it’s working on a plan to solve the problem.

Stephen Perkins, director of the Office of Ecosystem Protection at the Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, is one of the people who will decide whether a proposal coming from the Shumlin administration next month will be enough to keep his federal agency from bringing down the regulatory hammer on the state of Vermont.

“I’ve talked to you the last couple of years about much technical work that was done to determine the sort of the scientific foundation of all the policy choices that need to be made,” Perkins told Vermont lawmakers Wednesday. “And we’re sort of at that moment of truth here.”

Perkins says the state needs to undertake serious efforts to curb the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain. The feds have a vested interest in preserving the health of what is the sixth largest inland body of water in the country. And phosphorous levels in the lake now exceed EPA standards by 36 percent.

While Perkins directed his words at a legislative committee Wednesday, the job of coming up with an acceptable proposal lies mainly with the Shumlin administration. David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, assured Perkins and lawmakers that the administration is up to the task.

“Everyone acknowledges that there’s a problem that we need to fix. So the real question in my mind is how quickly we get to a resolution to solving this problem,” Mears said. “And the longer we put it off, the longer it will take to solve it. But I am confident that we will get there.”

The administration has to have a proposal to the EPA by the end of March. And Mears says the plan will focus its solutions on what he says is the source of the problem.

“Most of the pollution that’s going into the lake is coming from the landscape,” Mears said. “Over 95 percent of the pollution comes from storm water runoff.”

Mears says solving the run off problems will mean changes in things like agriculture practices and municipal storm water regulations. The EPA’s Perkins says his agency will need to be assured that Vermont will put some regulatory pressure behind its push for cleaner water.

If the state’s plan doesn’t pass muster, then the EPA would impose strict pollution emission standards on sewage treatment plants – one of the only pieces of state infrastructure it has the authority to regulate. Mears and others say the new wastewater treatment standards would be extremely costly, and would take a financial toll on larger municipalities, while leaving other major polluters free to continue business as usual.

Chris Kilian is director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont, a group that has pushed for tighter water quality standards. He says the unveiling of the clean-up plan will be a defining moment for Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“It’s one of those moments where Vermonters can look at what unfolds over the next two months to say, is this administration really going to commit to clean up the lake, or are we going to let this problem pass us by, yet again,” Kilian said.

The administration will present a final proposal by the end of March.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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