EPA Chief Brings Support, Not Regulatory Pressure, To Lake Champlain Cleanup

Oct 10, 2014

Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stood on a windy beach Friday in St. Albans Bay State Park and made a commitment to Vermonters.

“I’ll do the work,” she said.

McCarthy, standing alongside Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, was in Vermont to show support for the state’s efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.

The news conference at the St. Albans Bay State Park was a lot of activity on a beach that was empty for much of the summer because of toxic blue-green algae blooms that filled the bay for weeks.

McCarthy was in Vermont announcing a $67,000 grant for lake cleanup and to listen to Vermonters weigh in on how the EPA can help with lake cleanup.

“We have been making some great success in drinking water and the water bodies that we love in terms of protecting them,” she said, “but we are facing unprecedented challenges.”

Leahy agreed that more work is needed and said he will use his political power in Washington to bring money to the cause, but the money needs to be spent well.

“I can go for the money,” he said, “but I want to know – we want to know where the money goes.

And Vermonters delivered with some specific recommendations.

Lori Fisher, the executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee, asked for drinking water standards related to algae blooms, more regulatory control over polluters and ongoing federal investments in the lake.

"Face the elephant in the room, okay? Everybody knows where 75 percent of the crap that goes in this lake comes from, and yet we rely on voluntary compliance. But what I see out there - it ain't working." - Bob Qua, St. Albans Resident

Others repeated the call for funding, but just one recommendation got applause.

Bob Qua, a Saint Albans resident who fishes on the lake, said the politicians needed to show some political will.

“Face the elephant in the room, okay? Everybody knows where 75 percent of the crap that goes in this lake comes from, and yet we rely on voluntary compliance. But what I see out there – it ain’t working,” Qua said.

Qua was talking about farm runoff, which is responsible for the largest portion (close to 40 percent) of Vermont’s phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain.

State regulators have so far declined to mandate best management practices (BMPs) on farms that would reduce water pollution, instead relying on voluntary efforts.

McCarthy said she doesn’t see it as her role to tell them to do otherwise.

“You know, I support taking actions that we’re doing right now,” she said, “which is to develop a plan. And the state decides how best to take action on these things.”

But Chris Kilian, the head of the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the EPA plays a vital role in the state process.

“EPA needs to make an evaluation of the effectiveness of the state’s program,” he said. That program is the state's effort to meet requirements known as the total maximum daily load, or TMDL. The state has been working for more than a year to develop a new implementation plan to respond to problems in the lake.

The whole reason the state is creating a new plan is because the EPA said the old one, developed in 2002, wasn’t good enough.

Part of the EPA reasoning, Kilian said, is that “it determined, in looking at how things had developed over time, that the predictions with regard to the effectiveness of voluntary agricultural BMP programs was just drastically overstated in that 2002 TMDL.”

Eventually, McCarthy’s agency will have to determine whether the state’s controls on farm pollution – or lack thereof – are enough.

Clarification 2:45 p.m. Oct. 13, 2014 An earlier version of this story said the state is developing a new TMDL. The state is developing an implementation plan; when the EPA rescinds approval of a TMDL, it is the agency's responsibility to come up with new requirements.

Correction 2:45 p.m. Oct. 13, 2014 An earlier version of this story misspelled Lori Fisher's first name.