Tag Archives: Blue-green algae

When is a law not a law? The sponsor responds

A couple days ago I wrote about the saga of Act 86, which requires constant monitoring of Lake Champlain for blue-green algae blooms, but actually accomplishes nothing in the real world.

Well, I’ve talked with one of those responsible for the law, and here’s what I learned.

First, Act 86 was not a stand-alone pice of legislation, which you wouldn’t know from reading VPR’s report on it.

“The bill itself has two parts,” explains Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes). “The first addresses CSO’s [combined sewer overflows], and the second, cyanobacteria [blue-green algae].”

Lanpher was chief sponsor of H.674, the CSO bill; Rep. Kathleen Keenan (D-St. Albans) was chief sponsor of Act 86, the algae piece. Both measures addressed public notification of water quality problems, so they decided to combine the measures into a single bill.

While Act 86 has had little practical effect, H.674 has been highly impactful, turning an unforgiving spotlight on troublesome municipal wastewater systems.

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When is a law not a law?

A philosophical question triggered by a specific actuality: a new law intended to inform the public about toxic algae blooms is pretty much a sham.

VPR’s Taylor Dobbs explains how it’s supposed to work:

The new law is know as Act 86, and it requires the Vermont Department of Health to start public outreach within one hour of finding out about a bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

Great idea, right?

Here’s the problem: there’s no mechanism to conduct real-time tracking of algae blooms. The Legislature passed a shiny new PR-friendly law — “Look, we’re doing something to ensure your safety!” — but did nothing about turning its good intention into reality. The monitoring effort is entirely in the hands of volunteers, and there’s a huge amount of ground to cover.

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Oh, so THAT’S where all our gunk is going

The recent blue-green algae bloom that caused a shutdown of the public water system in Toledo, Ohio has brought overdue public attention to our own algae troubles in Lake Champlain. (With an undertone of sneering about the industrial Midwest’s environmental stewardship.) Various media outlets have asked the musical question, “Could it happen here?” And they’ve dutifully reported the bland reassurances of local officials and the warning cries from advocacy groups.

But one media outlet took a unique step, and discovered that hell yes, it’s already happening here.

Or near here, anyway. In last week’s edition of Seven Days, Kathryn Flagg surveyed the landscape for traces of blue-green… and her search took her to the upper end of the lake – over the border in Quebec.

Though drinking water from Lake Champlain on this side of the border has never tested positive for the toxins associated with blue-green algae, some Québec residents routinely receive notices that their water is not safe to drink.

… “I’ve lived in Bedford since 2004, and it happens every summer,” said Aleksandra Drizo, a research fellow at the University of Vermont…

Wow, I thought to myself. That’s really bad. A lot worse than Toledo, right?

And then I thought, Wait a minute. Doesn’t Lake Champlain flow north?

Flagg’s article didn’t say, but another story in Seven Days confirmed my thought.

So… our gunk is poisoning their water.

Which ought to make us clean, natural and green Vermonters ashamed and embarrassed. We’re exporting our environmental damage. And because our gunk is (at least partly) flowing northward, we don’t suffer the consequences.

That’s appalling. And it’s one more sign that Vermont’s pure-green reputation isn’t nearly as deserved as we like to think.