Environmental Group Says State Permits Allow More Lake Pollution, Not Less

Oct 23, 2017

The Conservation Law Foundation has appealed four of the first sewage treatment plant permits that Vermont state officials have approved since the new Lake Champlain cleanup plan went into effect last year.

The state permits, as approved, would raise the limit on the amount of dissolved phosphorus the sewage plants are allowed to release into the Lake Champlain watershed.

“Dissolved phosphorus dumping into Lake Champlain is like gasoline on the flames,” said CLF senior attorney Chris Kilian.

Phosphorus in water has been the central focus of Vermont’s water quality regulation and legislation for much of the past decade. Phosphorus is found all over the landscape, from cropland to forests to paved city streets, and it’s known to cause blooms of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. The blooms make the waters of Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi a deep green color and sometimes emit neurotoxins and liver toxins.

The technical name for Vermont’s 2016 Lake Champlain cleanup plan is a “Total Maximum Daily Load” or TMDL. The plan requires the state to make specific reductions in the amount of phosphorus pollution flowing from Vermont into Lake Champlain.

Now, according to the CLF appeal, officials at the state Agency of Natural Resources have issued four new permits that increase the amount of phosphorus that sewage treatment plants are allowed to send into Lake Champlain.

Jen Duggan, the general counsel for Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, says the agency developed the new permits specifically to meet the water quality requirements of the Lake Champlain cleanup plan.

“Prior to issuance of these permits, EPA did review the draft permits for these facilities and they also concluded that the draft permits and the limits for phosphorus discharges in these permits comply with the Clean Water Act, and they are consistent with the Vermont Lake Champlain phosphorus TMDL,” Duggan said.

Duggan said she could not speak to whether the permits increase the allowed amount of Phosphorus pollution in the lake because state officials had not yet reviewed CLF’s appeal. The phosphorus limits in the permits are established by the Agency of Natural Resources, which Duggan represents.

In an October 5, 2017 letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation (which is part of the Agency of Natural Resources), EPA Acting Regional Administrator Deborah Szaro said the permits are acceptable and comply with federal law.

Kilian disagreed.

“We can't add more pollution into Lake Champlain right now,” he said. “That's a huge mistake and it's illegal.”

This graphic from the Conservation Law Foundation shows state-permitted increases to the amount of phosphorus that sewage treatment plants are allowed to discharge. VPR has not independently confirmed CLF's data.
Credit Courtesy / Conservation Law Foundation

The argument Kilian is making on behalf of CLF is that allowing increases in phosphorus discharge to Lake Champlain is in direct conflict with the Lake Champlain cleanup plan, which requires reductions in phosphorus pollution.

The appeal was filed with the state’s environmental court.