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Environmentalists Take State To Court Over Water Pollution

John Dillon
VPR File Photo
Missisquoi Bay was green with algae in 2012 where the Rock River flows into the bay.

The Conservation Law Foundation is challenging the state of Vermont in court to impose more stringent controls on water pollution from farms in the Missisquoi bay watershed.

Chris Kilian, the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the group filed an appeal in the environmental division of Vermont Superior Court Tuesday after the state Agency of Agriculture declined to mandate “best management practices” on farms in the polluted Missisquoi Bay watershed.

"There's no question, from Conservation Law Foundation's perspective, that the time has come for mandatory best management practices in the Missisquoi watershed," Kilian said. "The water quality in Missisquoi Bay is horrific. The public is being deprived of the use of that precious water body, property values are declining, and the cause of that water pollution has been well-documented at taxpayer expense."

CLF in May petitioned Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross to mandate the practices after years of toxic algae blooms in Missisquoi Bay. The blooms are fueled by phosphorus pollution from manure and other sources.

The environmental law group argues that the state isn’t doing enough to improve the health of Lake Champlain, especially when it comes to controlling farm pollution. Runoff from agricultural land is responsible for more than one-third of the state’s pollution into Lake Champlain, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ross declined to mandate best management practices, which would require farms identified as “critical source areas” for pollution to implement stricter water quality measures. In his decision, Ross said the state should “continue to re-deploy its personnel and accelerate its compliance and enforcement activities.”

The decision also notes that “[t]here is universal agreement that BMPs, when targeted and implemented on a farm specific basis that includes field level assessment, can reduce the contribution of phosphorus to the lake from agricultural operations in the basin while also increasing long term farm productivity and economic viability.”

Under existing state regulations, all large and medium farms must have a permit with the state and be inspected for compliance with existing water quality rules, according to Jim Leland, the director of the Agriculture Resource Management and Environmental Stewardship Division at the Agency of Agriculture.

In an interview last month, Leland said any dairy with less than 200 “mature animals” does not require such a permit, though all farms are required to follow "Accepted Agricultural Practices," also known as AAPs.

CLF contends that AAPs don’t do enough to prevent water pollution, and that farmers in the polluted Missisquoi basin should have to do more. The state says it has the authority under existing law to require farms to improve manure handling and storage.

Update 12/18/14 4:08 p.m. Ross issued the following statement in response to the CLF appeal:

The Agency of Agriculture will continue to work in partnership with the Agency of Natural Resource to develop a robust new plan and revised regulatory framework to advance water quality in Vermont. The critical components of this joint effort include a new Phase 1 Implementation Plan for the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). This plan will require the implementation of many of the practices envisioned by the CLF petition. The Agency is in the process of revising the current Accepted Agricultural Practices Rules (AAPs) to increase regulatory requirements for all farms to elevate their water quality performance utilizing many of the suggestions outlined in the petition, testimony and written comments. In addition, the Agency of Agriculture, in partnership with the Agency of Natural Resources, has redeployed and will be deploying additional resources which are focusing on the Missisquoi Bay Basin to educate, promote compliance and to enforce where necessary to increase the protection of water quality in the Franklin County region. We believe these measures are and will be the most productive approach to achieving improvements in water quality. The Agency is strongly committed to managing agricultural phosphorus losses in the Missisquoi and other watersheds in Vermont. We are eager to increase our work with farmers, watershed associations, partner organizations, interested citizens, and community groups to advance effective actions at all levels of our community to improve water quality for this region, and all of Vermont.

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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