Tag Archives: Chuck Ross

Maybe Vermont farmers aren’t so pure after all

Will Allen, writer and organic farmer, has issued a scathing report on Vermont farmers’ use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The report is based on official state data, which shows that between 2002 and 2012, herbicide use nearly doubled on Vermont farms.

Farmers used 1.54 pounds of herbicide per acre in 2002; that number increased to 3.01 pounds per acre in 2012.

That, in itself, is appalling — especially for a sector that wraps itself in the pure-Vermont blanket when it comes to political issues like, say, the pollution of Lake Champlain.

Allen’s report focuses mainly on herbicide and pesticide use, which spiked at the same time GMO corn* became nearly universal on Vermont farms. You know, the stuff that’s supposed to reduce the need for killer chemicals. (See note at end of this post.)

*A factoid for those impressed by our GMO labeling law: 96 percent of corn grown in Vermont is genetically modified. Ninety-six percent!

Gee, maybe Monsanto sold us a bill of goods?

But there’s another aspect that really struck me.

Continue reading

So maybe James Ehlers wasn’t such a nut after all.

Not too long ago, most of Vermont’s environmental groups were lining up to give Gov. Shumlin a pat on the back for a strong Inaugural Day commitment to cleaning up Lake Champlain. The notable nonparticipant in the cheerleading was James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International, who saw the plan as inadequate and almost doomed to failure.

Vermont’s waters need more science and less politics. That is what we have taken away from the governor’s inaugural address and the subsequent media events.

… We need and want his plan to succeed. But, sadly, it won’t.

For his trouble, he was cast as the outsider unwilling to accept a pretty good plan that was probably the most that could be hoped for, given current political and fiscal realities. Well, that might have been the nicest way it was put:

To his admirers, Ehlers is a fearless crusader for water quality, willing to speak truth to power — even if that pisses off political officials and establishment environmental groups in the process.

To his detractors, Ehlers is, at best, a bombastic ideologue. Some doubt his motivations, wondering privately if he’s fueled more by ego than environmentalism.

But now, here come the “reasonable” enviros sounding an Ehlers-like alarm.

Shumlin’s [Inaugural] message was celebrated by environmentalists. But two months later, many of the same supporters say the state’s cleanup plan is insufficient to achieve state water quality standards.

“It really doesn’t do much of anything to deal with the several agricultural problems that are present in the most polluted watersheds in Lake Champlain,” said Chris Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Kilian and others are upset over the Agriculture Agency’s handling of farm-related water quality issues. Ag Secretary Chuck Ross has refused a petition to impose “best practices” on farms near impaired sections of Lake Champlain, and seems more concerned with concocting excuses for inaction than for pushing ahead with an aggressive enforcement plan.

Maybe that’s no surprise, considering that his agency is more of an encourager — and enabler — of the ag industry than an environmental enforcer. As Kilian says, “there is no demonstrated track record that we do share the same goal.”

It’s easy to conclude that the Shumlin administration is ambivalent about Champlain; if not for the threat of the EPA hanging over its head, we’d almost certainly still be in “speak loudly and carry a toothpick” mode. The administration’s goal seems to be devising a plan that will barely be enough to mollify the feds.

Ehlers, of course, was saying so all along. He should be forgiven if he indulges in an ironic chuckle.

At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk

Among the news stories buried in the avalanche of Grubermania are three separate developments regarding Lake Champlain. They adhere to a familiar pattern: one baby step forward, one big step back, and yet another dopeslap from the feds.

Yep, we’re making progress by… uh… well, it’s not leaps and bounds. Creeps and crawls?

A reminder before we begin on this week. The stoutly environmental Green Mountain State would still be ignoring its stewardship of Champlain if not for the Conservation Law Foundation’s 2008 lawsuit that compelled the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act for Lake Champlain. Specifically, to set a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus, the chief nutrient responsible for our festive annual outbreaks of toxic algae.

Our pride and joy.

Our pride and joy.

Yeah, Green Mountains and, er, a green scummy lake. Nice.

In response to the suit, EPA decided to force tighter standards on Vermont. That happened in January 2010. In the nearly five years since, EPA has been chasing the state in an extreme slo-mo version of a Benny Hill scene, with Yakety Sax playing at 78 r.p.m. (Ask Grandpa, kids.)

(Historical sidelight: In January 2010, Louis Porter was CLF’s Lake Champlain Lakekeeper, and he hailed the EPA decision as signaling a new day and “a new, science-based approach to cleaning up Lake Champlain and making sure it remains a safe and enjoyable resource.” Today he’s a top Shumlin Administration official, which either means he’s a double agent working from within or he’s gone over to the Dark Side.)

Since early 2010, the state’s response has consisted of delay, baby steps, delay, lip service, promises, delay, half-baked initiatives, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, and… checking my figures here… delay.

Fast forward to this week.

First, the Shumlin Administration proposed a new fee on “impervious development” and a 1% hike in the fertilizer tax. The moves made sense, because agricultural fertilization and impervious development are two prime contributors to our plentiful nutrient flows into the Lake. Problem is, the two measures combined — assuming the Legislature approves them — would raise $1 million a year for lake remediation.

With cleanup costs estimated at $150 million, that’s a drop in the bucket.

(Addendum, 12/4/14. According to DEC Commissioner David Mears, the $1 million figure was basically a “for-example” sort of thing, and the administration wants to set the tax and fee rates high enough to produce $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue.) 

Second, the Administration released a 36-page Clean Water Initiative that promises to tighten water-related regulations and establish a Clean Water Fund (revenue sources decidedly sketchy) to help pay for needed improvements, One of the Initiative’s provisions involved a pirouette by the Governor; in August he downplayed the need for upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, but the Initiative called for more investment in wastewater treatment.

Then there was a step back. Or, at least, a refusal to step up, from Ag Secretary Chuck Ross. He decided not to mandate “best management practices” for farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed, one of the most phosphorus-laden parts of the Lake. Ross gave two primary reasons, per VPR: 

— Mandating best practices “would be inconsistent with EPA’s ongoing process for water quality improvement in the Lake.” Which sounds downright Orwellian to me; limiting ag runoff “would be inconsistent” with EPA’s efforts to, uh, limit ag runoff?

— Also, “the state doesn’t have the resources available to help the basin’s farmers achieve compliance.” As if EPA is hat in hand, making a polite inquiry, rather than enforcing compliance with the Clean Water Act. Does Ross expect that, upon hearing his plea of poverty, EPA will say, “Oh, sorry. Never mind, then.”

And finally, a regional EPA official said the newly-minted Clean Water Initiative “does not go far enough to comply with federal regulations.” Stephen Perkins noted that phosphorus loads are still on the rise in many sections of the Lake, and said:

It’s going to take an awful lot of work to take those red trend lines and get them to bend down in a different direction.

VTDigger’s John Herrick summed up the bad news:

Even if the state’s plan were fully implemented, projected phosphorus levels in South Lake A and B and Missisquoi Bay would still exceed phosphorus limits set by the EPA. These are sections of the lake where phosphorus levels already must be cut by more than 50 percent to meet the federal requirements, according to the EPA.

And let me remind you that some of the worst pollution, caused by us Vermonters, is at the upstream end of the lake, in southern Quebec. We’re lucky Canada isn’t suing our asses.

In response to his comments, Perkins got some vintage rope-a-dope:

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said Monday that his agency has no other proposals to present to the EPA at this time. “We’ll continue to have our sleeves rolled up and we’ll continue to work.” he said.

Mears pointed to the additional but intangible impact of “technical assistance and educational outreach” programs, which he admits cannot be quantified, “but we expect it will be substantial.”

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d have a clean Lake by Christmas.

And then Mears pulled a Chuck Ross:

“We don’t want to put forward a plan that we can’t actually achieve,” he said.

Instead, I guess, EPA is supposed to be happy with a completely inadequate — but achievable — plan.

This isn’t all the Shumlin Administration’s fault. They’re dealing with the consequences of decades and decades of ignoring the problem and letting it get worse. But it has fallen in their laps, and their response has been… how did I put it… delay, lip service, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, half-baked initiatives, and delay. It’s safe to say the only way we’ll get a good cleanup plan is if EPA holds our feet to the fire until they’re glowing red.

For a liberal administration in a state that’s supposed to have a strong environmental ethic, this just sucks. To think that Vermont is having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do stuff we should have been doing all along, well, it makes me doubt the existence of our strong environmental ethic.

The public response to all this has been underwhelming, to say the least. Little attention seems to be paid. Even the environmental community, which ought to be spitting fire, seems oddly passive. (I’m sure CLF would say they’re working hard behind the scenes, but I don’t see it.) We look at that $150 million figure and shrug our shoulders. What can we do?

Well, apparently, our inclination is to keep loading our prize jewel with guck, and put off our day of reckoning as long as we can.