A leading environmental group says it may appeal a state ruling that rejected stricter controls on farms in the most polluted watershed of Lake Champlain.
The Conservation Law Foundation wanted the state to require farmers in the Missisquoi Basin to follow best management practices to reduce pollution. These include wide buffers between fields and streams and properly storing manure.
Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross says he welcomes CLF's involvement. But he says the requirement for those stricter controls sought by the group are in conflict with an ongoing cleanup effort by the state and the EPA.
"So appreciate the direction, appreciate the effort, but can't approve the petition based on the letter of the law and the resources we have," Ross said.
Missisquoi Bay, and other shallow northern bays of Lake Champlain, frequently see summertime blooms of toxic blue green algae, fueled in large part by phosphorus pollution from farms.
Chris Kilian, CLF's Vermont director, says the decision means the watershed will continue to get fouled by farm run-off.
"The decision is a litany of excuses and technicalities that really to me underscores the fact that this agency, the Agency of Agriculture, is not credible as a water quality regulatory agency," he says.
In his ruling rejecting the CLF request, Secretary Ross promised to more aggressively control farm pollution. He says he will direct the agency's agricultural water quality program to "accelerate" compliance and enforcement efforts in the basin.
"We need to be able to differentiate what violations are occurring, under what circumstances, and what would be the appropriate remedy," Ross said.
But Kilian says the agency lacks a commitment to effective enforcement.
"To say to violators, you have violated the law — maybe even committed a crime — and there will be serious penalties and compliance requirements associated with that meted out in an expedition and aggressive fashion," he said. "That's what results in deterrence and what results in impacts beyond a particular pollution problem at a particular farm."
Kilian says his organization is weighing an appeal in state Environmental Court, or it may take further legal action in federal court.