EPA: Vermont's Lake Champlain Clean Up Plan Falls Short So Far

May 15, 2014

Federal regulators have pressured the Shumlin Administration to show how it plans to curb the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain. The Environmental Protection Agency says the state’s most recent proposal is lacking. And the EPA has served notice that it wants a more aggressive plan for action.

The letter from the EPA’s Office of Ecosystem Protection is 13 pages long. And it details a host of shortcomings with the state of Vermont’s most recent Lake Champlain plan to reduce phosphorus pollution. The phosphorus from farm fields, sewage plants and urban run-off feeds the toxic algae blooms in the big lake.

"EPA was clear in saying, you haven't identified those programs specifically enough, you haven't described what you will do, the timeframes that you're set forth are generally too long, and you haven't identified funding that would actually give us any assurance that these programs are going to be implemented. " - Chris Kilian, Conservation Law Foundation.

And a quick summation of the EPA’s critique might go something like this: “Show us the money.”

Amid all the items in the state’s lengthy proposal, the EPA says there’s nothing to show quote “how the state plans to secure the funding that will be needed to launch new programs.”

Some estimates peg the clean up costs at $150 million. Chris Kilian, director of the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, says the state’s failure to identify revenue streams for that money is one of many shortcomings in the administration’s proposal.

“EPA was clear in saying, you haven’t identified those programs specifically enough, you haven’t described what you will do, the timeframes that you’re set forth are generally too long, and you haven’t identified funding that would actually give us any assurance that these programs are going to be implemented,” Kilian says.

David Mears , commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says he was not caught off guard by the EPA’s assessment.

“They confirmed also that they wanted to know more about funding, and how we as a state plan to find the resources to implement this, and we knew that that would be an issue and are committed to looking for those resources,” Mears says.

Mears says he doesn’t know yet where that money will come from, or what share towns, businesses and state taxpayers will be responsible for. But Mears says the administration will present a more detailed funding plan this fall.

“We know clean water doesn’t come free, but we want to make sure we don’t spend money in ways that aren’t thoughtful and careful,” he says.

The Shumlin administration is under pressure not only from the EPA, but also an environmental community that has, to date, had mostly scorn for the pollution reduction efforts put forward by the state.

Clean water advocates had hoped for a more responsive approach to the clean up effort when Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin replaced his Republican predecessor, but say they’ve been unimpressed thus far.

Kilian says that while the costs to bring phosphorus in line with accepted standards will be high, the state doesn’t need to hit taxpayers to pay for it. According to Kilian, commercial real estate facilities, industry, and in some cases farms, should be footing much of the bill.

“Industries can be regulated in a way that prevents pollution. And taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for those industries to not pollute,” Kilian says.

If the state doesn’t come with a plan that passes federal muster, then the EPA will impose its own clean-up plan from on high. And that could end up being a far costlier scenario than one in which Vermont gets to write its own destiny.

If the Shumlin Administration wants to retain that autonomy, however, it will need to make some significant revisions to the proposal.

The letter, written by the EPA’s Stephen Perkins, calls not only for more robust and defined financial backing, but also a faster timeline and more detailed action plans at the state agencies that will be responsible for executing the proposal.

The state plan puts a 20-year timeline on the clean up effort; Perkins, however, says no more than 10 percent of the work should remain after 15 years. And he says he wants to see more concrete “milestones” in place between now and 2017, to ensure that remediation efforts yield results more immediately.

“While EPA is prepared to consider that some of the implementation work will extend 20 years into the future, we will require a clearer commitment to implement the higher benefit programs in the early and middle phases of implementation,” Perkins wrote.

Perkins says the state’s plans to address two of the more severely polluted areas of the lake – Missisquoi Bay and South Lake – are especially lacking..

“We remain concerned that there is not a clear plan with actions that meet the preliminary reduction targets in Missisquoi Bay and South Lake,” Perkins wrote.

But perhaps the most “sobering” part of the EPA’s assessment, according to Mears, was Perkins statements about the role that pollution reductions from wastewater treatment plants will likely have to play in any acceptable clean-up plan.

“That was a sobering comment and probably one of the more substantial comments we got from the EPA,” Mears says. “So we’ll be looking to figure out whether there are ways that we can sensibly make additional investments in wastewater treatment plants.”

The state had hoped to avoid requiring any facility improvements at municipal sewage treatment plants, arguing that those kinds of costly upgrades were unlikely to deliver as big a bang for the pollution remediation buck.

“What we’re trying to avoid is having a real shock to the system, on multiple levels,” Mears says. “We’re going to be asking communities to be doing a lot in the areas of storm water pollution reduction, and dealing with their roads infrastructure … they’re going to be hard-pressed to do all of that and invest in sewage treatment and upgrades.”

But Kilian says that in places like St. Albans, Burlington and Shelburne, wastewater facilities play a significant role in the pollution problem, and that action is needed.

Mears says he appreciates the skepticism from the environmental community. He says he’s optimistic the state will soon have a plan that satisfies both federal regulators and local clean water advocates.