Environmental watchdogs say they’re heartened by Governor-elect Phil Scott’s pick to lead the Agency of Natural Resources, but that it’s too early to discern whether the incoming Republican administration is serious about cleaning up Lake Champlain and tackling some of the other major environmental issues facing Vermont.
Julie Moore heads the water resources division at Stone Environmental, an environmental consulting firm in Montpelier. She’ll soon replace Deb Markowitz as secretary of natural resources, Scott announced Tuesday.
Moore spent six years at the Agency of Natural Resources under the administration of former Gov. James Douglas, where she worked on pollution-reduction efforts related to Lake Champlain.
“The focus of all of my work to date has been on protecting the natural environment, and specifically water resources," Moore says.
Scott said in a written statement that Moore's "expertise and experience as an engineer will help us strengthen the connection between our natural resources and our economic security, and I look forward to working with Julie and the entire Agency to manage our natural resources as a vital part of our state’s health, identity, culture and economy.”
Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says Moore’s appointment is cause for optimism.
“Hopefully it demonstrates a commitment to basing natural resource protection and management decisions on science, given Julie’s background as a scientist, so we’re pretty pleased,” Shupe says.
Chris Kilian, Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, says Moore’s work in the private sector has been critical to his organization’s cleanup efforts on behalf of Lake Champlain.
“Not the least of which was the in-depth analysis that Stone Environmental did in the Missisquoi watershed,” Kilian says.
Kilian is referencing the “critical source-area study” that Moore spearheaded for the state while working at Stone Environmental. The findings of that study now serve as the basis for a legally binding agreement that CLF entered into with the Agency of Agriculture that requires the state to impose more rigorous management practices on Vermont farms.
But Moore will be serving at the pleasure of a Republican governor whose stance on Lake Champlain cleanup efforts has yet to satisfy advocates like Kilian and Shupe.
The Agency of Natural Resources estimates costs of $1.3 billion over the next 20 years to clean up Lake Champlain and other polluted waterways. Next month, State Treasurer Beth Pearce will provide legislators with a plan for how to fund the cleanup budget.
Scott, however, says he isn’t willing to raise new revenues in 2017 fund to water-quality initiatives. And Scott says he’s hoping the federal Environmental Protection Agency might, under incoming President Donald Trump, ease up on the regulatory mandates that have fueled the urgency behind the Lake Champlain cleanup plan.
“We don’t believe that Governor Scott has articulated an absolute clear and fast position on funding for water yet. He’s certainly made some statements that are of concern,” Kilian says.
Moore says the water-quality issues in Vermont are severe. And she says Lake Champlain and other water bodies are extremely sensitive to development and climate change.
“And in some ways both of those factors are coming together right now and creating some pretty difficult conditions,” Moore says.
Asked whether policy makers need to move forward with a revenue package in 2017 to make progress on clean-up efforts, Moore says she’s still examining the issue.
“I think I need a little more time to sort of wrap my hands around the bigness of that issue. Certainly we don’t want to stall progress,” Moore says.
Shupe says it would be a severe mistake to postpone Lake Champlain cleanup efforts out of financial expediency, even if the EPA dials back on its regulatory pressure. He says it’ll become clear early on in the Scott administration whether the new governor and his key appointees, like Moore, are serious about cleaning up the lake.
“I think the first and foremost is, are we going to fund our water quality improvements or water quality protections that we passed?" Shupe says. “That’s the biggest question, and that’ll be the earliest indicator of where the administration is.”
James Ehlers, the executive director of the advocacy non-profit Lake Champlain International, said he has confidence in Moore, but voiced concerns that Scott's approach to water quality will leave her without the resources and support to do a good job.
"I think she'll do a fine job as long as the folks around the governor-elect and the governor-elect himself reconsider his remarks on [VPR] just last week that he's hoping that Donald Trump's EPA relaxes the TMDL requirements," Ehlers said. "If the governor-elect doesn't reconsider his position, then I think Julie's going to have a really tough time getting her job done and complying with the TMDL. And complying with the TMDL - it's important because it's a step towards a clean lake. This isn't some bureaucratic exercise."
Moore didn’t immediately respond to a media inquiry Tuesday afternoon. She said in a written statement that she’s “looking forward to working with Governor-elect Scott, my new colleagues in the cabinet and the dedicated employees of the Agency of Natural Resources to promote and protect Vermont’s natural resources, working landscape and the recreation assets that we value as Vermonters and attract millions of dollars in tourism visits each year.”
VPR's Taylor Dobbs contributed to this report.
This post was edited at 12/13/16 to include comments from Julie Moore