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.
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.