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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

State Weighs Tightening Farm Pollution Rules

Taylor Dobbs
At a hearing, Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross listened to testimony from farmers resistant to more regulation as well as environmentalists who say it is needed.

Vermont’s farms are to blame for almost 40 percent of the state’s phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, the Conservation Law Foundation is calling on the state to force farms that pollute the troubled Missiquoi Bay to implement “Best Management Practices” to mitigate their pollution.

Currently, phosphorus reduction is largely voluntary for farms. But there’s increasing pressure on the state, both from federal officials and water quality advocates, to make dramatic cuts in Vermont’s phosphorus output into Lake Champlain.

Phosphorus is the pollutant that causes the toxic blue-green algae blooms that have plagued the lake in recent years, causing beach closures and fish kills.

The state recently submitted a new lake cleanup plan to the EPA. If approved, that plan calls for specific reduction strategies catered to individual watersheds feeding into the lake.

Missisquoi Bay is one of the most unhealthy areas of the lake, and the site of a large fish kill in 2012. The Conservation Law Foundation submitted a petition to the state to bring that watershed under control as soon as possible by forcing high-polluting farms to follow Best Management Practices, including wide buffers between fields and streams, keeping livestock away from streams and properly storing manure.

Many farms have already taken such steps voluntarily, as CLF attorney Anthony Iarrapino said Friday at a hearing.

“CLF applauds those forward-thinking producers,” he said. “But in light of the bay’s dire condition, and the widely agreed-upon need to achieve significant pollution reductions, continuing to rely solely on voluntary measures is not enough.”

"If the petition were supported by you, Mr. Secretary, the money to implement it is simply not there." - Bill Moore, Vermont Farm Bureau

But farmers and said at the hearing – convened by Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross – that new regulation could put producers out of business, especially if they don’t get financial support to make the changes.

“The money isn’t there,” said Bill Moore, a lobbyist for the Vermont Farm Bureau. “If the petition [from CLF] were supported by you, Mr. Secretary, the money to implement it is simply not there.”

Iarrapino told Ross he didn’t have enough information to suggest how much money would be required for the enforcement – or where it would come from. Ross repeatedly solicited ideas for funding strategies from supporters of the petition, but none were forthcoming.

The other problem that emerged at Friday’s hearing was the data the state was working with. Iarrapino relied mostly on a 2011 study commissioned by the Lake Champlain Basin Program to make his case, but both people involved with the study who spoke at the hearing were opposed to the petition.

Mike Winchell was part of the team that did the study. He says he is confident that the study served its purpose, but that purpose was not the formation of new regulations.

“I would advise against using the maps [from the study] as the sole criterion for requiring the mandatory adoption of [Best Management Practices],” he said. “That’s now how the maps were intended to be used.”

Winchell said the maps were created using data and didn’t necessarily reflect what practices were in effect on the land they identified as high-polluting. Instead, the maps were meant to be used as a starting point for officials and the public to use as they sought to clean up the water supply. Further ground work would be needed, Winchell and others said, to properly identify which farms need the most work.

Despite these problems, some speakers at the hearing were strongly in favor of new rules.

Pixley Tyler Hill is the co-owner of the Tyler Place Family Resort, on the Missisquoi Bay waterfront. She said the state gives farms an unfair advantage over businesses like hers.

“It seems that there are more exemptions for the farms, working towards not having to step up to the same degree that we do,” she said.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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