Tag Archives: John Herrick

The microfruits of capitalism

The decrying of “burdensome regulation” is often heard in our land. It discourages entrepreneurship; it’s leaving us behind in the global economy; it raises prices on everything we buy.

All true, to some extent.

But regulations don’t just happen. They are responses to excesses in the marketplace. They are necessarily imperfect responses; bureaucracy is not a precision instrument. Dodd-Frank, whatever its flaws, would not exist if the Wizards of Wall Street had a smidgen of foresight or conscience, if they’d been able to resist the temptation to make a quick billion off toxic derivatives and Collateralized Debt Obligations.

And now we have a new exhibit in our Gallery of Free Market Excess. It’s completely unnecessary, it’s hazardous to the environment, and even industry leaders acknowledge they don’t need it.

Mmmm, fish food!

Mmmm, fish food!

I’m talking about nonbiodegradable microbeads, “barely visible plastic scrubbing grains used in personal care products.” There’s a bill before the state legislature to outlaw them. John Herrick at VTDigger:

Environmentalists and water quality advocates want them outlawed because the non-biodegradable plastic waste is washed down the drain and slips through nearly all of the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

… No studies measure quantities of microbeads in Vermont’s waterways. But scientists who study Lake Champlain say the beads can be spotted along the shores.

Marine animals consume the microbeads, which can cause internal blockages. Scientists also say that toxic pollutants “attach themselves to the plastic beads like a sticker,” and then head up the food chain.

Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put teeny-tiny nonbiodegradable plastic bits into consumer products? Why do Vermont lawmakers have to spend their time debating a bill to ban them?

Well, now you know where regulations come from.

What’s worse, the microbeads are completely superfluous, according to Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, a Vermont company that uses natural alternatives.

“Microbeads are nonessential. Substances exist that are mineral or biodegradable, perform the same function, and have no meaningful impact on the economics of the products in which they are used,” he told the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Mike Thompson, who put his soul in escrow to take a job representing the Personal Care Products Council, says “the industry is committed to phasing out microbeads on a timely basis.”

Of course, his definition of “timely basis” may not be yours. The Vermont bill would ban microbeads on January 1, 2017. That’s too fast for Thompson; he wants December 31, 2017, to match a law already on the books in Illinois. And Jim Harrison, the ever-vigilant head of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, “prefers a bill that gives retailers time to sell existing inventories.” What, two years isn’t enough?

How many bazillions of microbeads would be flushed into our rivers and lakes during the year 2017? Can’t the industry manage to make the change in two years, instead of three?

Government regulation is, at times, wasteful, inefficient, and counterproductive. The only thing worse than regulation, thanks to the madly-spinning engines of commerce, is no regulation.

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.