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Neighbors Object As Farm Facing Environmental Violations Seeks To Expand

snowy barnyard
John Dillon
VPR File
Part of the barn yard at the Vorsteveld Family Farm in Panton and Ferrisburgh. Neighbors oppose the farmers' plan to add more cows to the operation.

Neighbors of a large Addison County dairy farm want to stop its expansion. But the farm — which faces state fines for environmental violations that date back to 2016 — argues adding more cows won't increase water pollution into Lake Champlain.

Neighbors have used drone photography to document waste from Vorsteveld Farm running off into Lake Champlain. They've hired a private lawyer to comb through state records. They even sought their own expert to challenge the state of Vermont's assessment of the farm's manure management.

But most don't want to talk to VPR publicly about what they say is the farm's harmful impact on the environment. They say they fear retribution, and don't want to make things any more tense in the neighborhood.

They have however, worked with the environmental group the Conservation Law Foundation, and CLF lawyer Elena Mihaly gives voice to the neighbors' worries.

“This is a farm that has been polluting the wetlands and waters surrounding it that drain into Lake Champlain,” Mihaly said in a recent interview.

"This is a farm that has been polluting the wetlands and waters surrounding it that drain into Lake Champlain." — Elena Mihaly, Conservation Law Foundation

Mihaly noted the Agency of Natural Resources has cited Vorsteveld Farm in Panton and Ferrisburgh twice for dredging and filling wetlands without a permit, and for allowing farm waste to flow into nearby waterways and toward the lake.

The state wants to fine the farm $21,750 for the violations. Mihaly said the fine should be much steeper, around $500,000 in order to provide a deterrent effect to prevent future pollution.

“Farmers are partners in environmental protection, and really critical to the health of our communities,” she said. “But when ANR fails to fully enforce environmental protections against farmers who violate the law, it hurts those that are trying to do the right thing to protect water quality and be good stewards of the land.”

Mihaly added that the Environmental Protection Agency has called on Vermont to improve regulation of farms.

“This arguably, if it goes forward and is allowed to kind of just be a slap on the wrist and they get to continue operating under their state permit and even expand their herd size, really flies in the face of the kind of regulation that EPA wanted to be seeing on these farms,” she said.

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

The Vorsteveld farm already milks about 1,500 cows. The brothers who run the farm want to add another 150 mature cows, while reducing the number of young stock by 75.

With the additional animals, the three farms run by the family would produce a total of 22.5 million gallons of manure a year, right near Lake Champlain.

The neighbors have amassed considerable evidence against the farm expansion project. Mihaly used their aerial photos showing plumes of runoff as evidence the farm should face a stiffer fine.

The CLF case filealso includes a letter from a Cornell University soil scientist retained by a neighbor. The scientist, professor Harold van Es, said his investigation showed the farm's clay soil simply can’t handle more manure without causing more pollution.

“This indicates that any future runoff occurring from these fields will become highly contaminated with manure,” van Es wrote.

A brown plume going into blue-green waters
Credit Conservation Law Foundation, Courtesy
Conservation Law Foundation, Courtesy
Included in the Conservation Law Foundation's Oct. 30, 2020 report is this aerial photo showing Lake Champlain's White Bay on April 17, 2018.

But farmer Hans Vorsteveld said they do everything possible to prevent runoff.

“We’re more concerned about that than they are," he said. "We do everything in our capacity to keep [manure] from running off. Especially, you don’t want any erosion, because it’s always the best soil that leaves.”

The Vortevelds have had a rocky relationship with some in their community for years. They’ve faced controversies over cutting trees along town rights of way, and installing tile drains that allegedly affected nearby property.

This summer's drought meant less runoff and thus fewer toxic algae blooms in that part of the lake. But it may have been a brief reprieve. People who live there say they’ve seen the lake’s problems get worse due to pollution from large farms.

But Hans Vorsteveld says his neighbors don’t really understand dairy farming.

“I would think that we should have like an informational meeting for the whole neighborhood so the whole neighborhood knows about farming instead of just looking at it from the outside and think they know everything about it,” he said.

"We're more concerned about that [runoff] than they are. We do everything in our capacity to keep [manure] from running off... You don't want any erosion, because it's always the best soil that leaves." — Farmer Hans Vorsteveld

Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said he’d also like to get the farmer and neighbors together so each could see the other’s perspective.

“My goal is to, you know, engage with the neighbors and hear their concerns,” he said. “And also, you know, talk with the farmer and see what their concerns are. At some point it would be great if the two sides could meet and sit down and talk about the issues between the two of them.”

Tebbetts said the pandemic has stymied plans for an in-person meeting. He is scheduled to meet virtually with the neighbors on Monday.

A man in a messy office
Credit John Dillon / VPR File
VPR File
Hans Vorsteveld, seen here last year, says the expansion project won't harm Lake Champlain and that the farm injects manure into fields to prevent runoff.

Hans Vorsteveld doesn’t seem to worried about that upcoming meeting. He says his brother Gerard is close with the agriculture secretary.

“He’s best buddies with Anson,” he said. “... I mean, we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re just applying for a permit amendment.”

Tebbetts said he’s met the Vorstevelds – along with many other farmers – but does not consider them personal friends.

“We have a constructive dialog with each other. But I wouldn’t characterize us as friends,” he said. “I’ve tried to counsel the farmers that they really need to be engaged with their neighbors, understand what their needs are and so forth.”

"I wouldn’t characterize us as friends. I've tried to counsel the farmers that they really need to be engaged with their neighbors, understand what their needs are and so forth." — Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts

The agriculture agency says the Vorsteveld's expansion application is incomplete and can't be fully reviewed yet. Laura DiPietro, the agency's head of water quality, said they're waiting for additional documentation on manure storage and nutrient management plans.

Meanwhile, a settlement agreement between the Vorstevelds and a separate agency – the Agency of Natural Resources – is pending in environmental court.

The agreement requires the farm to take a number of steps to prevent farm waste from entering nearby ditches and into the lake. But the Conservation Law Foundation says it has found other evidence of continuing water quality violations besides the ones the state identified. 

Mihaly, the CLF lawyer, said the issues with the Vorsteveld farm shows the state’s process for reviewing large farms has failed.

“This settlement agreement really only addresses one unlawful incident where this farm polluted waters draining to Lake Champlain by discharging agricultural waste,” she said. “We, in our comment letter, cited several other examples where there were really serious manure management and water quality problems throughout the farm.”

More from VPR: Divided Oversight Hampers Enforcement In Major Vermont Farm Pollution Case

DiPietro at the agriculture agency said the past environmental violations are not part of her agency's review of the permit amendment for the farm. However, she said that the Agency of Natural Resources does have to sign off on the new large permit as well.

“We have a consultation with them, and they respond back, and typically it's details within the permit considerations,” she said.

The CLF's Mihaly said the state should require the farm to go through a separate permit process under the federal Clean Water Act. That permit – called a concentrated animal feeding operation, or “CAFO” permit – has stricter standards and allows for greater public review than the state program, she said.

The state says it does have the option of requiring a CAFO permit. But no farm in Vermont has yet to go through that process.

Update 11/30/20 9:25 am.  The story was updated to clarify what Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts says is his relationship with the Vorstervelds. 

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

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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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