EPA Finalizes Lake Champlain Pollution Targets With Increased Accountability Measures

Jun 17, 2016

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the final, legally binding version of its “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) plan, which sets required pollution reduction targets for Lake Champlain.

The 120-mile-long lake, which is seen as an economic engine for Vermont and a cultural cornerstone of the state, has reached ecologically unsustainable levels of pollution in recent years. 

Phosphorus flowing into the lake from farms, roads, streambank erosion and other sources has reached high levels, fueling massive and potentially toxic blooms of cyanobacteria.

The new pollution reduction targets are the result of a process that dates back eight years. In 2008, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) filed a federal lawsuit that said pollution targets set in 2002 weren’t good enough.

  “We felt like it was insufficient for protecting the health of the lake,” says Conservation Law Foundation Staff Attorney Elena Mihaly. “The court found in our favor and there was a settlement agreement,and the settlement agreement meant that EPA was going to redraft these pollution limits for Lake Champlain. And that redrafting process has been happening for the last eight years.”

Mihaly said one of the main problems CLF found with the earlier pollution targets was that EPA had approved the plan without the state having done its part to ensure pollution would actually slow down.

“In order for EPA to approve the TMDL, they need to have what’s knowing as ‘reasonable assurance’ that the state has set forth strong enough regulatory programs to actually bring us into compliance with the TMDL phosphorus limits,” she said. “And that lawsuit really revolved around the fact that there was not reasonable assurance; the state had not laid forth a strong set of programs to really bring down, ratchet down phosphorus pollution into the lake.”

In the new plan, the state has established just such a list of programs, known as an “implementation plan” for the TMDL.

Mihaly said that with the final targets set, the state will begin to finalize that implementation plan.

“The state now has several months to revise its draft implementation plan, and that’s certainly where CLF’s attention will turn. We’ll be making sure that there are immediate pollution controls put in place on all sectors to achieve these really vigorous phosphorus reductions that need to happen in the new TMDL,” she said.

"EPA will be looking to see if the programs that the state set forth actually are achieving the phosphorus reductions that were anticipated." - Elena Mihaly, Conservation Law Foundation

Another change in the new TMDL, Mihaly said, is that it sets out a results-based assessment of the state’s efforts. The EPA will issue report cards with updates on the state’s progress.

“Whereas the old draft just included a review of whether a certain activity happened by a certain date, there will now be actually a qualitative review, and EPA will be looking to see if the programs that the state set forth actually are achieving the phosphorus reductions that were anticipated.”

A bloom of cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae, appeared in Lake Champlain at a Burlington beach in July 2015.
Credit courtesy / the Vermont Department of Health

In a statement announcing the new pollution targets, EPA’s New England regional administrator Curt Spalding endorsed the state’s efforts so far, including Act 64, a broad water quality law that passed in 2015.

“While EPA is setting the targets, the strategies for meeting those targets has and will continue to be led by Vermont,” he said. “Act 64 and the state’s Implementation Plan provide a progressive roadmap for achieving these targets. EPA commends Vermont for some cutting edge choices on how to tackle all significant sources of phosphorus and for all the implementation planning already in motion at the state and municipal level.”

While the TMDL is a major milestone in the continuing effort to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain and prevent cyanobacterial blooms, it doesn’t remove phosphorus simply by being published. In order to meet the targets, the state will have to develop and implement new policies for a wide range of pollution sources such as farmland management, commercial developments, road construction, forestry and grazing pastures.

“Our action today does not mark the end of EPA’s involvement, but rather the beginning of the next phase,” Spalding said in the statement. “EPA will continue to provide support to the Vermont agencies and will assess and report to the public on progress in meeting the commitments in Vermont’s Implementation Plan and reducing phosphorus loads to the Lake.”