'We Don't Want To Contaminate The Water': Tough Finances Add To Farmer's Pollution Problems
As the state spends tens of millions of dollars to clean up Lake Champlain and other waterways, dairy farms are under increasing scrutiny. And for one Vermont farmer, financial difficulties due to years of low milk prices added to his problems with complying with water quality regulations.
Doug Butler sells locally raised beef from his farmhouse east of Middlebury. The dairy has been in Butler’s family since 1927, and his west-facing fields have commanding views of the Adirondacks.
While this is lucrative property for building homes, he’s conserved one big piece with the Vermont Land Trust. Last spring, however, Butler could have really used the money. That’s when he sold most of his milking herd to pay off some bank loans.
"That was probably the worst day of my life. Loaded 'em on the trailer, take 'em down to the sale barn, and I sat there and watched every cow sell. They brought good money, paid the bank off." — Doug Butler, farmer
“That was probably the worst day of my life,” Butler said. “Loaded ‘em on the trailer, take ‘em down to the sale barn, and I sat there and watched every cow sell. They brought good money, paid the bank off.”
But well before he sold his cows, Butler faced other pressures. Inspectors from both the state’s agriculture agency and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources were responding to calls like this to a state tip line:
“I would like to call about a manure pit that is overflowing. It’s located on Munger Street.”
The caller, a woman who witnessed the alleged pollution, left this April 12, 2019 voicemail with the Agency of Natural Resources:
“It’s the Butler farm. And the manure pit is overflowing, going downhill and into a stream, that is flowing south. It’s been overflowing pretty much most of the winter. And it’s really getting bad now, and I’m concerned about the water quality.”
Listen to the voicemail from a citizen filing a complaint about Butler's farm:
The federal Clean Water Act and state law have for decades made it illegal for farm waste to enter waterways. However, in recent years, farms of all sizes have faced new permit requirements and inspection procedues aimed at preventing run-off.
Previous VPR stories have explained how the authority to regulate agriculture is divided between two state agencies:
Who's Regulating Vermont's Water? Records Show Confusion, Delayed Enforcement By Two Agencies [Feb. 4]
‘It’s The Dairy Farm Sewer’: Neighbors Say State Is Failing To Regulate Agricultural Pollution [Dec. 9]
Divided Oversight Hampers Enforcement In Major Vermont Farm Pollution Case [Nov. 22]
And now, public records reviewed by VPR show that the split jurisdiction can lead both to bureaucratic confusion and continuing pollution.
Butler’s overflowing manure pit had been a problem for more than a year. In May 2018, an enforcement officer from the Agency of Natural Resources visited the farm, and his report said he witnessed “manure laden runoff" in the ditch.
Six months later, in Nov. 2018, the same official saw the pit was overflowing again. But the case was still winding through the enforcement process.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture told Butler he had to fix the problem by hiring someone to pump his manure pit.
But Butler had hit a financial wall. Agriculture agency specialist John Roberts spelled out the situation in a voicemail to the enforcement officer handling the case at the Agency of Natural Resources:
“Basically, he has no more money now. And so the contractor can’t do anymore until he comes up with some money. I will have some discussions with Doug about stacking manure and doing whatever he can to [put] as little as possible into the pit.”
Listen to the voicemail from agriculture agency specialist John Roberts to the Agency of Natural Resources:
And yet, according to records, manure continued to flow in a ditch toward an unnamed tributary of the Muddy Branch, as Butler struggled to pay his debts and come up with the money to clean up his operation.
Butler said he doesn’t think the manure that spilled over from his pit last year reached a stream, despite state reports that documented the pollution.
“The state said it did run over, it made us feel terrible,” he said.
Butler sold most of his herd in May 2019 out of financial desperation. He said the Vermont attorney general's environmental enforcement division is now after him to pay some $40,000 in penalties for the violations.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case.
“We went through some rough times, struggling and all that, and that’s the way it ended up, damnit,” Butler said. “So we got to fight this. But we don’t want to contaminate the water and all that.”
The Agency of Natural Resources built the enforcement case against Butler for violating water quality regulations. Kim Greenwood, a deputy commissioner at ANR who used to run the enforcement division, said she knows it can be expensive for farmers to comply.
"We're not blind to the fact that these are sometimes significant investments ... So when push comes to shove and we come in and say, 'Time's up,' those are difficult, difficult conversations to have." — Kim Greenwood, Agency of Natural Resources
“We're not blind to the fact that these are sometimes significant investments that need to happen, and often very delayed investments that have been on the radar for inspectors for awhile,” Greenwood said. “So when push comes to shove and we come in and say, ‘Times's up’, those are difficult, difficult conversations to have.”
After Butler sold the milking cows last spring, he and his sons launched a beef business. He said he loves raising good nutritious food, especially for people in hospitals and nursing homes.
“The idea is to see healthy people,” Butler said. “That’s what makes a farmer high.”
And despite the pending financial penalties, Butler said he believes in strong water pollution laws. He said everyone needs to do their part.
“I think they’re needed,” he said. “Water quality is very important. On Lake Champlain, how many septic systems drain into that lake? And I hear when we’ve got heavy thunderstorms and rains in the summer that the beaches in Burlington are shut down because those manure tanks run over.”
Butler said his lawyer is negotiating with the state over the penalties, and that his manure pit still needs work, because the hopper that empties it is plugged up and frozen over.
And as rain and melting snow enters the pit, it can overflow again, causing another violation of water quality regulations. That’s both a financial issue, and a potential legal issue, he still has to face.
Update, 9:55 a.m. Feb. 7, 2020: The story was updated to clarify that for decades it's been illegal under state and federal law for farms to discharge waste into waterways.
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