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

Advocates Flog New Lake Champlain Clean-Up Plan

John Dillon
VPR File
Phosphorus runoff is blamed for toxic summer algal blooms in Lake Champlain.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has unveiled an updated plan to clean up Lake Champlain. And administration officials say it’s the most ambitious proposal yet. But clean water advocates say the report will do little to head off an ecological disaster in the state’s largest body of water.

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says the clean-up proposal submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday is a bold step forward in the decades-old effort to curb pollution flowing into Lake Champlain.

“And what’s different about this plan is we are really, truly putting out a comprehensive proposal that addresses all of the major sources of phosphorus into the lake,” Mears says.

The phosphorus comes from dairy farms, wastewater treatment plants and storm water runoff. And it’s flowing into the lake at levels that have begun to spawn toxic summer algal blooms. Mears says the new report will serve as a blueprint for the rehabilitation of a polluted lake.

“And if we follow through on this, then we really will make a substantial dent in the amount of phosphorus reduction,” Mears says. “In terms of cost effectiveness, it’ll be the best investment we can make.”

Clean water advocates, however, say the document represents the latest disappointment from a Democratic administration that has failed to live up to the high expectations of the environmental community.

“It’s a political problem. It’s an issue of leadership and will,” says Chris Kilian, director of the Conservation Law Foundation of Vermont. “It’s not an issue of technical ability or money. It’s an issue of political leadership and resolve and commitment to get a clean lake.”

Kilian’s organization has used the legal system to intensify federal scrutiny of the state’s Lake Champlain pollution remediation plan. He says the state’s latest proposal does nothing to improve the issue of wastewater treatment facilities, which, according to Kilian, a contributing significantly to the phosphorus problem in some of the most polluted parts of the lake.

Kilian says the administration’s plan for “business as usual” on that front will allow those sewage treatment facilities “to continue to dump just as much phosphorus as they are now, and potentially even increase that loading.”

Mears says the administration has made a calculated decision to target action and investment in areas that will yield the highest returns. Agriculture accounts for about 40 percent of the total phosphorus load, according to Mears, compared with only a few percent coming from wastewater treatment plants.

Mears says that “to get the next increment of phosphorus reductions” from wastewater treatment facilities “would be exponentially more expensive.

“We think those dollars and investments should be made in other areas,” Mears says.

The federal government in 2011 told the state it needed to come up with a better plan for reducing phosphorus loads flowing into the lake. The EPA reiterated the need for a revised proposal last fall.

Kim Greenwood, water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says the new clean-up plan – called a TMDL, for Total Daily Maximum Load – is ambitious in scope. But she says it lacks the regulatory or legal teeth to ensure that polluters actually reform their behaviors. She says those shortcomings are particularly acute when it comes to the department’s approach to reducing phosphorus runoff from agricultural sources.

“I would have expected some of the provisions in here to be more mandatory and less voluntary and incentive-based,” Greenwood says. “Because we’ve been trying incentives and education for years and it’s not getting us where we need to go.”

Greenwood says the state has also failed to require private-sector entities, be they large dairy farms or commercial developers, to contribute financially to a clean-up effort projected to cost as much as $150 million.

The administration’s new plan doesn’t attempt to calculate how much the effort will cost, who’s going to pay, or where the money will come from, despite statements from the EPA indicating that the identification of a funding source would improve its confidence in the viability of the state’s clean-up plan.

Lawmakers this year had considered legislation that raises taxes on rooms and meals, liquor and wine sales and rental vehicles to begin generating revenue to pay for the Lake Champlain clean up. Mears though says it’s too early to put a price tag on the problem.

“Ultimately I anticipate a proposal that we’ll go to the Legislature with next fall that will include a request for increased dollars for a variety of categories,” Mears says.

The EPA will now review the revised clean-up plan. If federal regulators aren’t pleased with the progress, they could impose costly mandates on the state. Mears says the administration is committed to working with the EPA to devise a plan that solves the problem.

James Ehlers, director of Lake Champlain International, a group pressing for better water quality, says only a serious overhaul of the plan could turn it into something he’d invest any optimism in.

“We’re like that sick cancer patient who doesn’t want to give up smoking. We can continue to smoke and hope for the best, or we can take the doctor’s advice,” Ehlers says.

Ehlers says it’s not up to the state to solve the problem. But he says it’s their job to enforce more responsible behavior from the real estate developers, municipal governments and agricultural operations contributing to the phosphorus problem. Ehlers says it isn’t merely the health of the lake at stake, but the residents living nearby.

“I don’t expect the government to be able do all of this by itself,” Ehlers says. “But the government certainly can set the framework, just like it establishes the roads and the speed limits. There needs to be the proper framework for an economy that protects water rather than poisons water.”

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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