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

Lawmakers Put Pressure On Shumlin To Clean Up Lakes

House lawmakers have given final approval to legislation that aims to expedite the clean-up of Vermont waterways. But the bill that passed the floor Thursday doesn’t include any funding for the effort. And even its chief proponent says it won’t address the pollution crisis unfolding in places like Lake Champlain.

Lawmakers say the ecological crisis unfolding on many Vermont waterways demands action. But they say the Shumlin Administration isn’t working fast enough to curb the flow of pollution into lakes and rivers. And while the bill that passed the House Thursday doesn’t do much to address the issue, supporters say it represents a sort of call-to-action for the administration.

"I am confused, to say the least, in terms of where the administration is in terms of providing leadership on this." - Westminster Rep. David Deen, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

“So I am confused, to say the least, in terms of where the administration is in terms of providing leadership on this,” says Westminster Rep. David Deen, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

The state is under heavy pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to slow the movement of phosphorus into Lake Champlain. The nutrient, found in sewage, animal waste and urban run-off, feeds the algae blooms that plague the big lake.  Last month, the Shumlin administration submitted its latest clean-up plan to the EPA.

But the proposal drew scorn from clean water advocates, who said it doesn’t go nearly far enough. And Deen says he shares the concerns of the environmental community.

“What I am concerned about is that because the Phase 1 plan does not have any identified revenue sources, does not have any commitment to actually putting, if you will, boots on the ground to do the steps that they say that they’re going to do, that EPA is not going to approve it,” Deen says.

Deen doesn’t think the administration’s proposal will pass federal muster. And he says he worries that the EPA might respond by exerting influence over municipal wastewater treatment plants, one of the few areas it can readily regulate.

Deen says that could be a financial disaster for the state, which could get a much better return on its investment by spending money to reduce pollution related to farms and storm water runoff.

“We are going to spend a lot of money doing the least as opposed to spending the least amount of money doing the most,” Deen says.

Deen says that if the Shumlin Administration doesn’t come through with a more respectable clean-up plan before the 2015 legislative session, then lawmakers might  assume a more assertive role. But the Legislature may have only limited ability to force the issue.

Chris Kilian, director of the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, says the Legislature will play a vital role in providing whatever funding and regulatory changes the administration needs to execute a sound clean-up plan.

But Kilian says that unless the Shumlin Administration demonstrates a willingness to address the problem in a more meaningful way, legislative mandates will simply be ignored.

“But again, the problem is without leadership from the governor, without leadership from an administration that cares about clean water, as David Deen said in his comments on the floor, all these laws become a hollow promise,” Kilian says

And Kilian says that if the executive branch doesn’t fulfill its duties under the federal clean Water Act, then the battle to clean up the lake will likely be fought in the courts.

The EPA is in the process of reviewing the clean-up plan submitted by the administration last month.

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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