Legislative Wrap: In environmental matters, GMO and toxic chemical bills succeed; water quality, solid waste and land use measures diluted

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier. Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Grassroots campaigns that pitted public health advocates against industries opposed to new regulation were winners in the Vermont Legislature’s biennium that ended Saturday. Garnering national headlines, the governor signed the nation’s first GMO labeling initiative and the regulation of toxic chemicals in children’s products has support in his administration.

The new law requires food manufacturers to label products containing genetically engineered ingredients sold in the state starting July 1, 2016.

Backed by an overwhelming majority of Vermonters, the policy was carried by the chorus that consumers have the “right to know” what is in their food.

And, as expected, an industry trade group representing the likes of food giant General Mills has said it will sue the state over the policy. Genetically engineered commodities, labeling opponents say, keep food prices low, use less land and resources to produce, and are not harmful for human consumption.

If the law survives legal attacks, foods containing GE ingredients will include a one-line label and must not be labeled “natural” or “naturally made.” Animal and dairy products are exempt from the law. The Attorney General’s Office is currently writing the rules for the policy and will seek public feedback.

Toxics

Lawmakers passed a consumer protection policy that could ban toxic chemicals from children’s products. In the final days of the session, the Senate gave decisive approval to a scaled-back House version of the bill despite reluctant support from its lead sponsor seeking a more expansive program.

Industry groups from across the county stormed the Statehouse to kill new regulations they say will put in place costly reporting fees for chemicals that may not pose any health risk.

Public health advocates disagree. They say the bill is a starting point to protect all consumers from a wide range of health issues – including cancer – linked to toxic chemical exposure from tens of thousands of untested consumer products.

The bill requires manufacturers of children’s products to report to the state toxic chemicals intentionally added to their products. Reporting is required every two years starting in 2016. The health department will then decide whether to require the manufacturers to label products or to remove certain chemicals considered a risk to public health.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has not publicly announced he will sign the bill, but it has the support from several administration officials.

Lake Champlain

Lawmakers were not surprised by the Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent sobering letter calling on the state to present a funding plan for the Lake Champlain cleanup.

Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said on the House floor in April that Gov. Peter Shumlin needs to show more “leadership” on the Lake Champlain cleanup. Deen later settled for a watered-down water quality bill that stalled in the Senate.

Environmentalists also are calling on the administration to show a commitment to the plan, including the Conservation Law Foundation, the environmental advocacy organization that challenged the EPA’s previous plan for reducing phosphorus loading to the lake, sending both the agency and the state back to the drawing board.

Seeking to show a commitment to the EPA, lawmakers suggested increases to the state’s tourism taxes to pay for several near-term runoff-reduction measures, including a new certification program for small farms and education and outreach for foresters and city builders – all of which the Agency of Natural Resources is too understaffed and too resource-strapped to undertake currently.

Lawmakers say the bill gets the ball rolling for next year when they will use the administration’s plan as the foundation for policy and financial decisions.

Shoreland Protection

Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, was able to float a shorelands permit program on this year’s water quality theme. The Agency of Natural Resource already had the permit standards ready to go at the start of the session, and was already working on education and outreach materials for the standards before the bill received final approval from the House.

H.526, which is designed to preserve aquatic and shoreline habitat along Vermont’s lakes and large ponds, will put in place new statewide permit standards starting July 1.

A bin full of mixed glass bottles at the TOMRA recycling facility in Essex Junction. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

A bin full of mixed glass bottles at the TOMRA recycling facility in Essex Junction. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Solid Waste

What was an far-reaching omnibus solid waste bill designed to lay the foundation — and the financial footing — for the state’s universal recycling overhaul was parsed to a report the Agency of Natural Resources was already planning to do.

The bill had included cuts to the state’s popular bottle bill, a fee increase on trash disposal, a push for what towns say was a heavy-handed consolidation of the state’s solid waste districts, and a pilot program that butted the state’s two competing waste businesses head to head.

But the bill introduced by Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, landed in the House on life support. It was then stripped to several studies. And in place of the controversial pilot project was a new construction and demolition debris recycling program that opened up the market for broader participation among waste disposers.

The bill delays what will be hard-hitting decisions around the state’s waste system. This includes whether to expand or trash the state’s bottle bill. And the state will soon decide how to pay for what is set to be a far-reaching statewide recycling program certain to call on underserved areas of the state to meet new (and costly) statewide recycling and composting standards.

In a separate bill, H.695, lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation bill that requires single-use household battery manufacturers to set up a statewide battery collection program by 2016.

Land Use Changes

Proposed changes to Vermont’s longest-standing environmental conservation law had mixed success this session. Nonetheless, Act 250, the state’s land use and development permit, was amended to place new requirements on development in areas considered strip development. The changes are designed to “revitalize” the state’s growing cityscapes.

Proponents of the changes say they “modernize” Act 250 to limit automobile-dependent travel and sprawling big-box store development in rural areas while encouraging concentrated development in downtowns. Developers oppose the changes that they say will cause more projects to be denied.

Starting July 1, developers will be able to build more affordable housing – a definition that was expanded to include higher income-earners – without having to apply for a permit. For state-designated downtowns, the bill sets up an expedited review process for all projects, removes permitting fees, and sets up a faster sewer-permitting process.

Also, what was a bill to curb forest fragmentation through changes to Act 250 was stripped to a report: the Shumlin administration will study forest fragmentation and report back to lawmakers next year.

Controversial proposals to change the state’s Current Use program – which gives a tax break to landowners who use their land for agriculture or forestry rather than development – also failed. However, the Shumlin administration tacked onto the miscellaneous agriculture bill minor program tweaks designed to get more residents to enroll land in Current Use.

John Herrick

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