Tag Archives: Conservation Law Foundation

… and now the hard work begins.

The next governor of Vermont will find a big turd in his or her punchbowl next January. The loaf was delivered this week, courtesy of the EPA: detailed new limits on phosphorus pollution in twelve discrete areas of Lake Champlain.

This is one of the most impactful political stories of the year, but it got scant coverage in our political media; only VTDigger and VPR produced articles, and both lacked a comprehensive assessment of the new rules’ impact. The EPA is now in charge of a cleanup that Vermont has ignored for decades, and is only now addressing because it was forced to by the federal courts.

Yes, good old green old Vermont has been smothering its crown jewel in nutrient runoff for decades. The problem has been ignored by all previous governors; Peter Shumlin has taken a few initial steps, but nothing that will come close to meeting the EPA’s targets.

The piddly $5 million real estate transfer tax the Legislature enacted in 2015 to great fanfare is a drop in the algae-befouled bucket. The cleanup cost will be in the hundreds of millions, and we will also have to impose tough new limits on discharges from farms, developments, roads, and municipal wastewater treatment systems.

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Who speaks for renewables?

The anti- wind and -solar crowd had a big to-do at the Statehouse yesterday, wearing construction-type green vests and lugging all kinds of props as they pressed their case for the current iteration of anti-renewables legislation: a ban on ridgeline wind and “local control” over siting decisions.

This post is not about their arguments. This post is about the absence of response from those who supposedly favor renewable energy.

With the exception of VPIRG, our environmental groups have been curiously silent. On paper, they support renewables as part of a broad-based effort to combat climate change. But in practice, they stay off the battleground.

Disclaimer: I don’t have pipelines into their war rooms, and I don’t know the details of their lobbying efforts. I’m judging based on what I can see. And what I see is an extremely active anti-renewable movement and a distressingly quiescent response.

I’m talking VNRC, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Sierra Club among others. They all pay lip service to renewables, but what do they actually do? Where is the pro-renewables gathering at the Statehouse?

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David Mears seems like a nice guy

DEC Commissioner David Mears was on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning, mostly talking Lake Champlain cleanup. I’ve been, shall we say, somewhat critical of the Shumlin administration’s response to Champlain’s deteriorating water quality (recent post was entitled “At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk,” which I guess could be taken as critical). So I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The face of earnest concern.

The face of earnest concern.

And a lot of it sounded reasonable. He does, however, have a problem: the cynicism of people like me is based on decades of neglect and delay by multiple administrations — and the bare fact that the current Powers That Be are being forced to act by the feds. So pardon us if we don’t accept bland assurances at face value.

First, he made an important correction. Many news outlets reported (and I echoed the reports) that the Shumlin administration had proposed new levies on “impervious development” and agricultural fertilizers that would raise about $1 million per year for Champlain mitigation. Which is a drop in the bucket.

Well, according to Mears, the $1 million figure was a “for example” number, and the administration actually intendes to set the levies at rates that would produce $4 million to $6 million per year. Mears describes this as “seed money.” And while it still seems rather small, it’s a lot bigger than I thought. (See note at end of this post.)

Overall, Mears made a good case for the administration’s dedication to the issue. And at one point he said, “We’re used to fighting on this issue” in a way that seemed to lay the adversarial blame on both sides.

To which I’d point out that the last two administrations, at least, have been dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action whatsoever. The Conservation Law Foundation’s lawsuit against the state, for violating the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, was first filed in 2008. And that came after years of diligent efforts to convince state government to live up to its responsibilities without an expensive court battle. So if “we’re used to fighting,” it’s not because the environmental community is feeling a bit stroppy — it’s because they’ve been consistently stonewalled by state  government. There’s been little or no cooperation, at least as far as we can tell in public.

When such obstructionism is practiced by a Republican government, we’re disappointed but not terribly surprised. When it’s done by a Democratic administration that professes to hold a strong environmental ethic, it seems like a betrayal of shared ideals. And it’s the plain truth that the current administration has slow-played the issue to a crawl, even as Champlain’s quality continues to degrade.

Mears’ presentation fell short in some key areas. When Johnson (who did an excellent job holding Mears’ feet to the fire, by the way) asked about items like Ag Secretary Chuck Ross’ decision not to mandate “best practices” for farms near Mississquoi Bay and the potential laying of a natural gas pipeline under the lake, Mears ducked the questions, saying it wasn’t his responsibility.

Well, yes. But as Johnson pointed out, Lake Champlain is his responsibility. We should expect him to be fully informed on issues that affect water quality even if they’re not primarily in his bailiwick.

I came away from the interview with a greater appreciation for the nuances of the issue, and for the administration’s interest in addressing it. But there’s a whole lot of history to overcome regarding Lake Champlain — and regarding the administration’s often-slippery relationship with the truth.

In short, telling me about your plans and dedication isn’t enough. You’ve got to show me.

 

Postscript. In the interview, Mears noted that he’d been in contact with reporters to correct initial reporting that proposed levies on fertilizers and “impervious development” would raise $1 million per year, rather than the administration’s target of $4 million to $6 million per year. 

Well, Mr. Commissioner, nobody ever contacted me. I realize that I don’t know everything about state government, and my ignorance sometimes results in errors. I am always open to correcting any errors in the most transparent way possible. But rarely, if ever, do I get feedback from the administration. (Generally speaking, I get more feedback from Republicans than Democrats.) Now, I’m not as high on the pecking order as your established media, but I would rather be corrected than allow a mistake to remain in place. I may be a partisan blogger, but I do have a sense of responsibility. 

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.