Big Businesses Step Up To Aid Vermont's Water Quality Efforts

Jul 30, 2015

It's just after 10 a.m. on a weekday and Monique Oxender is standing on a rocky bank next to the Winooski River with an empty beer can.

She's with about 15 coworkers, and they're all on the clock.

Oxender is the chief sustainability officer for Keurig Green Mountain, and it's her first trip on the Winooski as part of the company's annual river cleanup.

As the State of Vermont collects new revenue and expands efforts to reduce water pollution in the state, Keurig Green Mountain and other big businesses are using their deep pockets and other resources to improve Vermont's waterways.

Instead of sales goals, margins or production quotas, Oxender and her colleagues are measuring the morning's success by the amount of garbage pulled from the water.

"For example, last year we had about 180 people in Vermont and over 6,000 pounds of trash," she said.

And that's not a token effort for water quality. Oxender says the company is also working with the state of Vermont to do projects that will have a measurable impact on pollution.

"In order to do that," she said, "we're looking at an investment of up to $1 million a year over the next five years."

That money fits in with cash the state is trying to raise through new fees and increased water quality staffing at state agencies. It's also part of a larger trend of big businesses bringing big money to the water quality effort.

"We're looking at an investment of up to $1 million a year over the next five years." - Monique Oxender, Keurig Green Mountain chief sustainability officer

Transmission company TDI-New England is hoping to get permits for a power line under Lake Champlain to serve markets in southern New England. And it's putting some big money on the table to help with water quality.

CEO Donald Jessome says the $202 million the company has promised in lake cleanup funds over the next 40 years is a sensible way to make sure the transmission line qualifies for a Certificate of Public Good – meaning the project is an overall benefit for the state.

Monique Oxender, right, searches for trash in the Winooski River with Liz Dohrman, who coordinates Keurig Green Mountain's volunteer efforts. The company offers 52 hours of paid volunteer time, and is working with the state of Vermont to do projects that will have a measurable impact on pollution.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

"Very early on, it became pretty clear to us," he said. "I mean, it was fairly simple. We're in Lake Champlain, which is a public trust of the state, and there's a need for phosphorus cleanup. So that was a fairly easy area for us to concentrate on."

At Keurig Green Mountain, there's no pending permit the river cleanup efforts will help with, and it doesn't seem to make a lot of business sense to have a group of IT specialists, executives and coffee packing staff spend their morning wading around in the mud. But Oxender says the company's policy of offering 52 hours of paid volunteer time actually is good for the bottom line.  

"We find that it actually helps retain talent, it helps attract talent," she said. "It's why people like to work at the company. Which ultimately does contribute to the bottom line with healthy, happy people."

"Very early on, it became pretty clear to us ... We're in Lake Champlain, which is a public trust of the state, and there's a need for phosphorus cleanup." - Donald Jessome, TDI New England CEO

Whatever motivates the private spending on public water quality, Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears says the help is much appreciated.

"And frankly it's one of the reasons and hopes that we had for the creation of the Clean Water Fund at the state level in this last session. [It] was to have additional state funds that we could use to catalyze those additional private investments," he said.

The TDI money would go into the state clean water fund. Mears says another benefit is that it gives the state more ability to steer the money to where it will have the biggest impact.

Keurig Green Mountain employees cleaned out a discarded tire before taking it out of the Winooski River in Waterbury. The company's efforts are part of a larger trend of big businesses bringing big money to the task of improving Vermont's water quality.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

"It creates a framework that corporations and philanthropic organizations can look at and decide if it fits within their own social mission and their goals and make investments that we know at the state level, we're held accountable to the public to showing actual results," he said.

But whoever's actually putting the money to use, Oxender says it's important for different groups to step up.

"Whereas we're all working towards an improvement in water quality in this state, each organization has a different way of getting there," she said. "Different tactics. And so in order for us to align, there has to be consensus around what are the issues, what are causing those issues, and what are the solution sets that we can apply."

For now, at least one of the solutions is getting that empty beer can out of the river.