Environmental groups critical of state’s cleanup plan for Lake Champlain

Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Burlington Bay on Lake Champlain in Burlington. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

The state’s plan to clean up Lake Champlain is inadequate, environmental groups say, and some doubt the governor’s commitment to the task.

The problem, they say, is the plan lacks funding and regulatory commitment.

“There’s a really solid house built on a really shaky foundation,” said Kim Greenwood, a staff scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Defense Council. “No matter how good our plan is, if we can’t get the funding for it, nothing is going to happen.”

The administration’s proposal, which it sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, this week, includes new standards to limit phosphorus runoff into the lake. Phosphorus pollution is linked to toxic algae blooms considered harmful to health, the environment and the state’s tourism economy.

The EPA rejected the state’s previous plan after the Conservation Law Foundation challenged it in court. The federal agency has been working with the state to draft a new plan by the end of the summer; it is awaiting a commitment letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin before it hands down a final water quality plan.

“This letter will decide the fate of the lake. If we can’t get the governor to commit, it doesn’t matter if we had the perfect solution,” Greenwood said.

The EPA has said the state must provide “reasonable assurances” to clean up the lake, including financial and regulatory commitments. Shumlin says the state needs a solid plan before he spends any more “loot” on the cleanup. Shumlin is working with the EPA to draw all available federal funds.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, who has been working closely on the plan, said the department will ask lawmakers for money next session.

“The funding is not likely to come all at once, anyways. This will require a sustained, continued effort,” he said. “I think this will be a forever conversation at some level.”

Former Lessons Learned

Former Gov. Jim Douglas’ 2003 Clean and Clear Action Plan was similar to the state’s current proposal. It focused on runoff from farms, forests and roads, and river management.

The state spent more than $57 million on (and leveraged $68 million in federal funding). In 2008, a performance audit by a Vermont consulting group concluded the program had done little to reduce phosphorus in the lake (though it pointed out there is a lag time between “action and outcomes”).

Pollution from wastewater treatment facilities was reduced under the plan, but there was criticism for not cutting pollution from other nonpoint sources.

The Conservation Law Foundation is concerned that the current plan will be more of the same.

Chris Kilian is director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Chris Kilian, director of environmental advocacy for the Conservation Law Foundation.

“We suffered through a decade of delay in the lake cleanup during the Douglas years that was justified through a catchy name for a program that didn’t exist, Clean and Clear. And I’m concerned the governor’s comments are heading in a similar direction,” said Chris Kilian, vice president and director of environmental advocacy for the organization.

Kilian said the current proposal changes little.

“Basically to correct the problem, the Department of Environmental Conservation is putting forward business as usual, and maybe a little more of it, on the same programs that have put us in the predicament in the first place,” he said.

He said the state should enforce new standards rather than create voluntary incentives; ask private developers to share the cost of building out new stormwater infrastructure through retrofits and building standards; and give state agencies more resources to enforce existing and new standards.

Kilian would not say whether the group will challenge the final plan under the Clean Water Act in court.

“We’re not standing down in any way,” he said. “We have a legal settlement with EPA that we intend to hold them accountable to.”

Mears said the plan increases the reach of existing programs and sets new standards, including a new program to retrofit certain state and municipal roads. And these new programs will come with a price tag the state is committing to cover if necessary.

“We have to be able to provide them some support and funding and assistance,” he said, referencing the farmers, foresters, developers, towns and others to be affected by the new program standards.

 A blue-green algae bloom in St. Albans Bay. Photo courtesy of Gould Susslin

A blue-green algae bloom in St. Albans Bay. Photo courtesy of Gould Susslin

Even if the plan were fully enforced, further action is needed to address the underlying problem of water quality issues in the state, according to James Ehlers, director of Lake Champlain International, a group formed to improve the lake’s water quality.

“I know that these plans are not going to work. These are the same kinds of plans that have been tried elsewhere and have failed,” Ehlers said.

He pointed to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office that concluded the EPA needs to do more to ensure that states meet water quality pollution targets, known as total maximum daily loads (TMDL).

“Is the plan going to work? No,” he said. “There’s not a fundamental change.”

This change, Ehlers said, could include a plan that creates a market for capturing waste and stormwater onsite.

“We need to create a sustainable economy built upon jobs that protect our water supply, not poison it,” he said. “Passing these products downstream creates problems for somebody else.”

John Herrick

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  • Tom Pelham

    Here’s a repeat of an earlier comment:

    Maybe CLF needs to cut through the “rope-a-dope” strategy of state environmental leaders with regard to Lake Champlain clean-up and employ a similar strategy they used for cleaning up Boston Harbor, especially since this problem covers two state jurisdictions.



    Before I returned home to Vermont, my employment was as the first MWRA Director of Development putting together the on-shore staging and lay down sites necessary to support the transfer of construction materials and workers to Deer Island from Quincy and East Boston. I saw firsthand the advantages of having Judge Mazzone guide the harbor clean-up process to a successful conclusion by, in part, cutting through the political BS often so deeply entrenched in Massachusetts government.

    Further, CLF should diligently follow the money in state government to find funding for clean-up efforts. Raising taxes need not and should not be the first option and will lead to resistance to any clean-up strategy. Relatively minor reforms in how we spend state funds dedicated to human services and education funds, which comprise 73 percent of such funds in the total state budget, should be a top priority. Over the last five years, state funds supporting ANR’s budget have increased at the annual rate of 1.96 percent with most of this increase coming from “special funds” rather than the general fund. Over the same period, the annual growth rate of state funds supporting AHS has been 8.05 percent with general funds increasing at the rate of 8.43 percent per year totally $215.1 million. Since 2000, the annual growth rate in state, non-federal funds to AHS has been 7.02 percent.

    ANR, the teachers’ pension fund, and Vermont’s higher education institutions, among others, are all in the same waterlogged boat of getting the left-over’s in state funds only after the two largest and fastest growing sectors, human services and education, get their sizable apportionments.

  • I find VTs plans for lake cleanup inadequate. We have spent 10s of millions upgrading watewater treatment plants with federal aid and not much bang for the buck. Its pretty clear that non-point source pollution is the issue and this is largely agricultural. EPA has little jurisdiction over farms and VT has no will to pressure farmers to do more. John McLaughry’s commentary here yesterday suggested a positive framework to accomplish that.

    The root cause however, is the economy. But not the burst housing bubble and recession, so much. This goes to deeply rooted federal policies regarding oil and dairy pricing.

    Oil subsidies make fuel and chemical fertilizer cheap. This makes the production of corn the best economical choice for feed and keeps cost of production near the federal price limits for milk. These subsidies create a false economy and the production of corn vs hay is much more destructive to our environment, especially Lake Champlain.

    Look around at the farmers that are successful. Niche markets and direct to consumer sales. VT could solves its pollution problem and build its economy if it stepped outside of the box of being money grabbing federal program lap dogs and found ways to dance around dairy price controls and petroleum/corn based ag practices. Grass feed replaces GMO corn and turns over the ground less frequently. Help the farmers find a way to make money with less invasive practices that pollute less. They’ll be happy and have enough abundance to pay for measures to further control runoff.

    Can VT really lead?

    • John McClaughry

      I’m curious as to just what subsidies are showered upon the oil industry. Aside from the Clinton administration’s huge offshore drilling lease “mistake”, I can’t think of any offhand. Deduction of intangible drilling expenses?

  • Tracee Rupe

    The following Letter from Ethan Swift outlines the kind of direct pollution into our waterways not being adequately addressed while the legislative focus for water quality clean up is the Shoreline Bill which ANR has admitted will have a negligible impact on water quality.
    “Rutland City is under a 1272 order (establishing proper methods to control an activity or manage substances which may cause a discharge to the waters of the state or which violate Water Quality Standards) to disconnect their Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, which is currently causing a chronic impairment in East Creek, a tributary to Otter Creek in the northwest area of the City (and not the entire City), although their are efforts to do this also in Moon Brook, also considered a stormwater impaired waterbody by the state.

    Combined sewer systems are sewers that are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. Most of the time, combined sewer systems transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. For this reason, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.

    The City is looking to disconnect the stormwater from the sanitary sewer system in the Library Avenue section of the City. Coupled with this, there will be a Stormwater Master Plan developed for the East Creek and Tenney Brook that will identify stormwater retrofit priorities as well as Low Impact Development (areas suitable for greater stormwater infiltration) and high priority Green Stormwater Infrastructure systems that should be managed and protected.

    The intent here is to improve water quality with this project and practices (which will become high priorities for implementation) and helps the City meet its requirements in their Municipal Storm Sewer Separation (MS4) permit, which is intended to address stormwater runoff from many sectors and with multiple approaches given the complex nature of stormwater management in a City like Rutland.

    I’d be happy to discuss this further and perhaps speaking with other folks involved in the project will help to shed light on the ultimate water quality benefit that this project will have. Evan Pilachowski, the Rutland City Engineer, would be a good person to speak with as he has intimate knowledge of this project.

    Please let me know if I can provide some additional info here as well.

    Thanks for the opportunity to try and clarify this work.



  • Chet Greenwood

    Property taxed under current use cost VT around $50 million per year. As a requirement to get current use designation, we could require a 50 ft buffer to any navigable waters. This doesn’t cost the state anything additional and I am sure a lot of current use property is on waterfront, either lakes, ponds or rivers.
    If this presents a hardship or any extenuating circumstances thenthe property owner can apply for a variance.

  • Jeff Wennberg

    Mr. Killian’s comments demand a response. Governor Douglas did more to address pollution in Lake Champlain than any governor, before or since. I served as his DEC commissioner from 2003-2007, and any delays in our efforts to address stormwater runoff and other sources of pollution were caused by a barrage of litigation, principally brought by CLF, which prevented rational regulatory programs from being implemented. My office chronicled tens of thousands of tons of pollution that were allowed to flow into Lake Champlain as a direct result of CLF’s litigation-induced delays. Often the litigation scuttled affordable, effective programs in favor of court-imposed requirements that were either impossible to meet or totally unrealistic in light of how natural systems actually function. Clean and Clear was a credible major step in the right direction. It suffered from the unrealistic expectation that a century of damage to the lake could be reversed in a few years. But the commitment of $115 million to lake cleanup over a handful of years does not constitute “delay.” It is the gold standard of political will and public policy priority.

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