Recap 2012: Climate change, Moretown Landfill, compost recall, tire pile top list of environmental issues

Floodwaters from Irene tore away sections of roadway on Route 100. such as this section in Lower Granville. VTD/Josh Larkin

Floodwaters from Irene tore away sections of roadway on Route 100. such as this section in Lower Granville. VTD/Josh Larkin

This year scientists and state officials took stock of climate change impacts on Vermont. They examined the environmental damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011, the unprecedented flooding of Lake Champlain and flash floods in Barre that year along with the largest ever toxic algae blooms on the lake this summer.

These weather events point to rapid changes in Vermont’s climate, scientists say, and a future of more intense storms coupled with droughts.

Meteorologists say another Irene is a distinct possibility in the near future. Vermont narrowly missed a swipe by Hurricane Sandy last fall.

Floodwaters from Irene killed six people, destroyed 500 miles of roadways, damaged 700 houses, rerouted rivers and streams and killed 70,000 fish.

Further degradation was caused by human intervention after the storm. Road crews dredged, channelized, bermed, straightened or otherwise altered at least 86 miles of stream channels. The regions with the most stream miles excavated were the White, West, Ottauquechee, Saxtons, and Hoosic watersheds.

Scientists say that despite the widespread destruction, the affected rivers and streams are resilient and will gradually come back.

But they warn that because of climate change induced weather patterns now in motion, there is one more flood per year than there was prior to 1970. Climate models predict that over the next 100 years, the northeastern United States will experience a wetter spring and fall and a drier summer.

For that reason, the Agency of Natural Resources has required many towns to install larger culverts that can prevent damage to infrastructure and better accommodate animal organisms like fish, stream salamanders and invertebrates.

~Reporting by Andrew Nemethy and Audrey Clark

Spread of toxic green-blue algae in Lake Champlain

Climate change also set the stage for the largest ever toxic blue-green algae bloom on Lake Champlain last year.

Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria live in warm, shallow waters that get lots of sun and low winds. And they flourish most where their primary source of food — phosphorus — is most abundant.

The bulk of last year’s phosphorus run-off was carried by the Winooski and Mississquoi rivers into Lake Champlain after Tropical Storm Irene and the spring floods in Central Vermont. ANR’s phosphorous readings from the two rivers more than doubled in 2011.

The high phosphorous levels combined with a hot summer led to large toxic blue-green algae blooms in the lake and first time beach closings in Chittenden County. Ferrisburgh’s Kingsland Bay State Park closed its beach due to heavy blooms, and South Burlington’s Red Rocks Beach did the same. Previously the blooms had been limited to Mississquoi Bay.

~Reporting by Andrew Stein

Odor, waste capacity and water quality problems at Moretown Landfill

Long-standing concerns about the Moretown Landfill came to a head this year when the state asked the landfill to demonstrate it can control odors or else it will be shut down. The convergence of increasing neighbor complaints, an expired permit, and an application to expand led the state to take action in November.

The Agency of Natural Resources announced last week that it intends to deny the Moretown Landfill’s application for recertification, which brings the landfill a big step closer to shutting down.

The decision is a response to the landfill’s repeated violations of environmental regulations, particularly off-site odors.

Vermont has just two commercial, lined landfills. If Moretown Landfill closes, Vermont will be left with just one, in Coventry. That landfill is farther from residences, meaning odors have more space to dissipate without bothering anyone. Solid waste experts say having just one landfill in Vermont is not bad because there are landfills in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire that can take our waste.

The trouble is, if Moretown Landfill shuts down, there will be a major shift in the local economy. Trash haulers will have to take their trash farther away, which will cost more. The town of Moretown will lose a major revenue source (the landfill paid $525,000 as a host fee last year, pays a hefty property tax, and provides free trash disposal for the town offices and schools). This could hike taxes for Moretown residents and increase the cost of trash disposal for surrounding towns.

In the upcoming session, the state legislature intends to revisit solid waste legislation to work out how to handle sewage sludge. Act 148, passed last summer, bans organic material in landfills by 2020. According to representative Tony Klein, sewage sludge wasn’t considered when the bill was passed. The decision to revisit the bill was apparently motivated by the complaints of Moretown Landfill neighbors, who said the smell got so bad at times, they gagged.
The landfill received three Notices of Alleged Violation this year, tallying 21 environmental violations. These included off-site odors, uncontrolled erosion, windblown litter, and landfill gas leaks.

Moretown Landfill tabled their application for expansion so they could focus on controlling odors. In response, the Moretown Development Review Board, which was reviewing the landfill’s application to expand, voted to continue their review next May.

Also this year, local residents formed a group, called Citizens for Landfill Environmental Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR), in opposition to the landfill’s proposed expansion.

~Reporting by Audrey Clark

Compost recall

Not long after Tom Moreau planted tomatoes in his garden he noticed the plants failed to thrive. The problem? Compost from the Chittenden Solid Waste District carrying persistent herbicides.

Soon Moreau, the director of the district, and his staff were handling dozens of calls from customers who had the same problem.

On July 25, the district began canvasing gardeners in the region who had purchased Green Mountain Compost. More than 500 residents filed claims for refunds, and the district braced to spend $1.4 million on the rebates, testing and lost product sales.

The district is working with the University of Vermont College of Agriculture and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to determine the cause of the problem and mitigate damage to plants. Samples were sent to a labs around the country. After a summer of research and study, federal, state and district officials Moreau described the problem as a “multi-headed dragon.” It appears, however, that compost from horse farms that feed their stock alfalfa pellets could be one potent source of contamination. The products tested for a high concentration of herbicides. The district is no longer using horse manure in its compost.

~Reporting by Kate Robinson

Milton tire pile

Rhoades Salvage yard, in operation since the 1950s, was shut down in 2009, but between 200,000 and 1 million tires dumped at the site in Milton over the years remains.

The mountain of tires is the symbol of an issue the state has been grappling with for decades, and of a battle being fought out in the courtroom, neighborhoods, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and the legislature over who is responsible for paying to clean up such unavoidable kinds of scrap.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, large piles of tires are at risk of catching fire because they retain heat. Tire fires release toxic smoke, oils and heavy metals and can lead to the evacuation of the immediate area. These toxic fires can burn for months and pose such a risk to public health and the environment that the sites where they occur may merit Superfund designation. A million burning tires can release about 55,000 gallons of liquid oil.

In spite of disgruntled neighbors and court orders over the last six years, no one has done anything to deal with the tires — until now.

A first step to a solution came when ANR committed to pay BDS Waste Disposal $75,000 to load and truck the tires to Maine where they will be recycled. ANR estimates this will reduce the pile by a third, but Rhoades believes that will only take care of 17 percent of the pile. Work on tire removal began in July.

Rhoades’ tire pile is one of the largest and most controversial in the state, but ANR officials say many others—no one is sure just how many—exist in salvage yards, on farms and even in backyards. Sources identified piles in Bristol, Hardwick, Montpelier and Wells. Solid waste regulations prohibit the storage of more than a tractor-trailer load of tires (about a hundred) outside of a registered solid waste facility.

~Reporting by Audrey Clark

Irene, climate change

After Irene: Looking back to 2011 and 1927 for clues to the future of flood disasters in Vermont

In time wildlife should recover in river habitats altered by massive dredging

Post Irene: The long wending way to river recovery

Scientists grapple with rapidly changing climate on Lake Champlain

VTrans turns attention to permanent infrastructure in worst Irene impacted areas

100-year forecast shows more frequent and serious flooding in Vermont

Roxbury fish hatchery springs anew

Moretown Landfill

State issues intent to deny letter to Moretown Landfill for recertification of facility

Moretown landfill’s problems similar to those in Burlington 20 years ago

Moretown board postpones landfill hearing until May

ANR gives Moretown deadline to prove odor control measures are working

ANR cites Moretown Landfill for environmental violations

A stinky problem: Nearby residents ask Moretown Landfill to eliminate rotten egg odors

Moretown Landfill to reduce intake of trash by 80 percent

Moretown residents worry about leachate from landfill

Moretown landfill neighbors recount problems they ascribe to blasting

Out-of-state sludge shipped to Moretown Landfill raises questions about expansion proposal

Compost recall

Definite answers to compost contamination proving difficult to find

Other Vermont compost brands test positive for trace levels of herbicides

Chittenden Solid Waste Management District faces major challenge in wake of chemical-laced compost

Milton tire pile

How Milton’s tire mountain became the symbol of an environmental issue fought in the courts

Anne Galloway

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