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EPA Says Lack Of State Permit Program Threatens Champlain Water Quality

A bloom of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, inundates the shore of Lake Champlain in this undated photo.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
A bloom of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, inundates the shore of Lake Champlain in a past bloom event.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Vermont's failure to develop a key pollution permit program threatens the health of Lake Champlain.

Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin signed Vermont's comprehensive clean water law in 2015. It requires the state to take a number of steps to reduce phosphorus pollution, including designing a new stormwater permit program for properties with three or more acres of impervious surface.

In a letter sent last month, the EPA said the state is behind schedule on developing the stormwater permit, a delay it says puts the lake’s water quality goals in jeopardy.

More from VPR: 'It's The Dairy Farm Sewer': Neighbors Say State Is Failing To Regulate Agricultural Pollution

“Developed land [phosphorus] loadings must be reduced by an estimated 25 metric tons/year of phosphorus for lake water quality attainment,” EPA Regional Administrator Dennis Deziel wrote. “In

"They [the Environmental Protection Agency] picked the September deadline and that's their choice, but frankly I don't think it is a realistic timeline." - Peter Walke, commissioner of Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

short, without an issued three-acre permit, the state cannot meet its 2016 [phosphorus reduction] obligations.”

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Peter Walke said he's told the EPA that the state doesn't have a funding mechanism in place to help businesses comply with the permit.

More from VPR: Auditor: State Not Pursuing Most Cost-Effective Ways To Cut Lake Champlain Pollution

“We were not able to offer them sort of assurances as to when we would be ready because there is so much uncertainty,” he said. “They picked the September deadline and that’s their choice, but frankly I don’t think it is a realistic timeline.”

The three-acre rule would apply to about 700 parcels of property, Walke said. Complying with the permit would not be too complicated in some sites, he said, such as those with adjacent land that could be used for a stormwater retention system. But other sites in more urban areas would require engineering and retrofit work.

“They’re complex and it’s really challenging,” he said. “It’s not an easy fix. There are not simple solutions for many of these places.”

Walke said businesses are also struggling with the financial impact of the COVID crisis, and it doesn't make sense to impose a new permit requirement without help from the state.

More From VPR: 'We Don't Want To Contaminate The Water': Tough Finances Add To Farmer's Pollution Problems

But environmental advocate James Ehlers, policy advisor to Lake Champlain International, said the big lake doesn't have time to wait.

“The cyanobacteria [blue green algae] outbreaks are just exploding all up and down the lake,” he said. “That's a function of predominately agriculture and stormwater, which the three-acre rule would address.”

Ehlers called on Gov. Phil Scott and his administration to do more to protect water quality. “The proof is in the state of the lake,” he said. “He gives lip service like every other politician. But when it comes time for action, it comes time for demonstrative proof, he’s not there.”

More from VPR: EPA Report Cites Progress On Lake Champlain Cleanup, But Activist Remains Skeptical

But Walke noted that the state has met 27 out of 28 of the “phase 1” milestones the EPA says are needed to reduce phosphorus pollution.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter @VPRDillon.

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Clarification July 16, 5 p.m. Story was updated to note that the rule applies to properties with three acres or more of impervious surface.  

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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