A crowd of more than 30 people gathered at the town hall in Cabot this week to discuss the way Cabot Creamery gets rid of wastewater leftover from cleaning its plant. The cheese maker is asking the state to renew its permit to spray the liquid on land. The crowd was there for a hearing called by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to take public comment on a draft permit issued in June.
Participants in Monday night’s hearing included neighbors of the plant in Cabot village and activists from around Vermont interested in water and soil quality. Twenty-five years ago Cabot began disposing of wastewater and whey by spreading it on farm fields. But since the 1990s the company has been processing its cheese whey into the concentrated protein used in protein shakes and bars. What it sprays on fields now is mostly water and food-grade cleaning chemicals.
But as the company has grown, the amount of wastewater has increased significantly. And opponents of the company’s wastewater permit say it is just too much for the fields to handle. State Representative David Deen, from Westminster West, was at the meeting representing the Connecticut River Watershed Council.
"When I read this permit, the thing that took my attention was the sheer volume," said Deen. "There are a lot of gallons of waste that are going to be land applied."
Although Cabot is in the Lake Champlain Watershed, Deen said many of the land application fields drain into the Connecticut River watershed, including the Passumpsic River, the Second Branch of the White River and tributaries of Joe’s Pond.
Other speakers said the permit does not require adequate testing at the application sites and that the cleaning chemicals in the water could pose a toxic threat. However, Cabot farmer Richard Hourihan says he does his own soil testing on fields where Cabot sprays, and an over-abundance of nutrients isn’t a problem.
"I plant one of the Creamery fields; well I plant two of them. I do soil samples every year," he said. "And every year I have to add phosphorus, nitrogen and potash to it."
Hourihan also said he trusts that the cleaning chemicals are safe, noting he uses the same products to wash his produce.
Lindsay Harris is a dairy farmer and an environmental scientist from Tunbridge. She was one of a few people who spoke on behalf of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and she proposed a compromise.
"Cabot is an iconic Vermont brand and we all want them to stay and be a productive part of our community," said Harris. "They have voluntarily pledged to maintain the highest standards of social and environmental excellence. VCE is proposing that the permit be renewed as a provisional one-year permit, while Cabot strengthens its monitoring program and works with the local stakeholders in a collaborative process towards enacting solutions to these issues."
But Michael Colby, of Walden, was among others in the room who said there is only one solution to handle Cabot’s wastewater, and it isn’t better monitoring.
"I disagree with my fellow environmentalists in this room who are saying give them a year conditional permit, a two-year conditional permit. Time’s up Cabot," Colby said. "If we’re going to give them any time, let’s give them the time to do what they should be doing, and your agency should be enforcing them to do, which is build a wastewater treatment plant. Period."
Building a wastewater treatment plant was a provision in the original land application permit issued by the state. However that provision was dropped when it was determined the headwaters of the Winooski River in Cabot could not handle the outflow from such a facility.
On its website, Cabot Creamery quotes former cooperative executive Shawn Bryan as saying, "According to all environmental evaluation and study, including Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources, the upper Winooski River would not ever be able to assimilate treated wastewater from the town and the creamery. This was true in the 1980s and it is still true today. We have investigated every waste treatment technology that is developed or proposed. Landspreading remains our best option."
The purpose of Monday's meeting was for the Agency of Natural Resources to hear public comments on a draft five-year permit. Officials from Cabot, and its parent cooperative Agri-Mark, were at the meeting to listen. They did not comment at the meeting, but said they would comment in writing to the Agency of Natural Resources after the hearing. Public comments on the draft permit will be accepted until September 10.