As the state was finishing up a lengthy revision of its composting regulations last year, a group of citizens in Shaftsbury mobilized to stop a proposed composting facility. The group examined the draft regulations and argued that they are at odds with what the Legislature wanted. In December, a legislative committee agreed — which means further delay before the rules are finalized.
Vermont has been struggling to amend its confusing and contradictory composting regulations since 2007. Awareness has grown that composting is part of a solution to problems as diverse as algae blooms in Lake Champlain, climate change and limited solid waste capacity. Nutrients from manure, food scraps, old hay and even animal carcasses can be concentrated, bound up and managed through composting, rather than polluting waterways. Food scraps, leaves, lawn clippings and other organic matter dumped in landfills creates methane, a gas at least 22 times as potent as carbon dioxide in causing global temperature rises. The finished compost is used by farmers and gardeners to improve soil and to nourish seedlings.
“The trend across the country and across the world is to site these facilities,” said Bob Spencer, contributing editor to BioCycle magazine and director of the Windham Solid Waste Management District, in a telephone interview. “Vermont has been slow in getting much capacity.”
Part of the reason Vermont has been lagging behind other places is that state statute hasn’t adequately classified commercial composting. Is it solid waste management or agriculture? Solid waste management is regulated by Act 250 and regulated by the Agency of Natural Resources. Farming activities are not covered by Act 250, and they are overseen by the Agency of Agriculture.
When most composting was of farm-generated materials, and the finished product was used on the farm, the inconsistencies in Vermont’s regulations were not a big problem. With the rise of composting of food residuals and sales of compost off farm, difficulties arose.
At Vermont Compost in Montpelier and East Montpelier, owner Karl Hammer composts manure from a dairy farm with food residuals diverted from the landfill and other feedstocks he buys to complete his “recipe.” His flock of 350 chickens lives off the food residuals and grubs in the compost, while the manure adds to the nutrient quality of the material. He also sells eggs in local stores.
For years, Hammer operated as a farm, exempt from Act 250. In 2008, in response to complaints by neighbors, the District Environmental Commission issued an opinion classifying part of the operation as commercial activity subject to Act 250. After fighting the decision in the courts and the Statehouse, Hammer agreed to go through Act 250 hearings and was granted his permit earlier this year.
In 2007, the Composting Association of Vermont, a trade group, set about to clarify Vermont’s composting rules. They issued a position paper and then convened stakeholders in a series of three day-long meetings in 2008, drawing more than 60 people and 13 agencies and organizations.
The Legislature joined the effort by establishing a compost study committee, also with broad participation, and asked the committee to recommend ways to amend the agricultural exemptions and specify types of areas, like village centers, where commercial composting would be banned.
Recently, the near-completed regulation hit a snag when Shaftsbury Residents for Environmentally Responsible Development (SRERD) formed in June after a local trash hauler proposed a 4-acre composting facility along Route 7A, on an 8-acre site backed by woods and adjacent to residences.
Trevor Mance, owner of the trash hauling company TAM, said in a phone interview that he had hoped to compost food scraps from schools, restaurants and other big sources in a 15-20 mile radius of Shaftsbury, both because it makes environmental and business sense. “My environmental conscience gives me guilt seeing food scraps go to the landfill and create methane, and my wallet hurts because I haul it so far.”
He said his trucks drive garbage two hours to the Moretown landfill. If Moretown closes, as it might in two years if it is not permitted to expand, his drivers will face an even longer haul, to Seneca Meadows, N.Y.
Mance planned to mix the food residuals with horse manure, which he said is abundant in the area, and other feedstocks. He said he had been in conversations with a local elementary school and Bennington College to involve their students in composting.
Though the proposed site is an ordinary looking field in a rural area, the idea of composting there provoked fierce opposition by neighbors who quickly organized and have made detailed, voluminous comments on the proposed composting regulations and related areas of state policy. They’ve become versed in composting practices and taken field trips to the Intervale’s composting operation (now called Green Mountain Compost) and Vermont Compost.
Objections to TAM’s proposal included its size, its proximity to surface waters, including a Class 2 wetland and a stream that flows to Lake Shaftsbury, and the “old” technology of windrows that Mance proposed using. (One of the group leaders, Mitch Race, said he preferred to see composting in a closed vessel, and he had obtained an estimate of $700,000 to $1.1 million for start-up costs for a closed vessel to handle a similar amount of compost to what TAM had proposed. Race also said that TAM had planned to spend $8,000 to get its facility started.)
SRERD showed up in force for a June hearing that Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) environmental analyst Carey Hengstenberg said was the largest and longest ever for a composting facility — four hours, including a site visit, with around 50 people participating. Hengstenberg said that the application met state regulations for setbacks to surface water and offset to groundwater, though she would have permitted a smaller volume than TAM applied for.
Mance said that he pulled the application in the face of the opposition; DEC confirmed that TAM has no pending application. There’s interest in neighboring towns in having the facility, Mance said, though he said it was too early to give more details.
“If TAM had gone forward with the permit application, I would have added some conditions based on what was said at the June hearing,” Hengstenberg said in a phone interview.
Pat O’Neill, director of the Composting Association of Vermont, said, “It’s useful to have a reality check about what it means in our town to have a composting facility of ‘x’ size. I think people responded appropriately.”
The Shaftsbury group, not content with stopping the proposed composting facility, reviewed the latest draft regulations before DEC staff presented them to the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR) on Dec. 1. The legislators cited concerns expressed by Shaftsbury residents, including that the draft rules failed to specify types of land where composting would be banned, regardless of local zoning regulations or even whether a town has zoning rules.
The Legislature gave the DEC a difficult task, Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, said at the LCAR meeting.
“We punted a task to the agency that the Legislature was not able to resolve,” he said. The authorizing statute for the rules gave examples of areas for the agency to consider banning composting in: designated downtowns, designated village centers and village growth centers.
Instead, DEC created setback requirements for new composting facilities, limiting them to at least 100 feet from the nearest property line and 300 feet from the nearest residence. Matt Chapman, an attorney for the DEC, told LCAR that the DEC believed that the setback requirements met legislative intent.
MacDonald disagreed. “We asked you to come up with a definition of areas. We gave examples of politically created areas, and we asked you to come up with areas that recognized where this shouldn’t happen, and you stumbled the way we had done. You’ve come ahead with something that doesn’t do as we asked.”
LCAR voted to extend the agency’s deadline for revising the rule and encouraged the Shaftsbury group to sit down with state personnel to resolve their differences. The department sent proposed revisions to Shaftsbury residents and other interested parties on Dec. 22, asking for comments by Jan. 2, ahead of a Jan. 12 LCAR meeting.
Kathy Geneslaw, a Shaftsbury resident, wrote that the revisions “are contrary to Legislative intent, arbitrary and could do harm, in some cases are negligent on the part of ANR and in many cases are outside agency authority.”
Meanwhile, TAM continues to haul its garbage mixed with food waste to the near-capacity Moretown landfill. A portion of the methane generated is captured and burned off in a blue flare that can be seen from I-89.