State And FEMA At Odds Over Fish Hatchery

Jun 4, 2014

Nearly three years after Tropical Storm Irene, the state of Vermont is still trying to secure FEMA funding for one remaining major project; the state fish hatchery in Roxbury.

The issue is whether FEMA is responsible for helping to pay for a replacement that meets federal clean water standards.

When Irene’s waters blasted through Roxbury they took with them the state’s oldest hatchery, sweeping 90,000 fish downstream. 

The outdoor ponds that held them were filled with gravel and silt. That’s the way they are today.

The Roxbury Hatchery is the oldest - built in 1891 - and repairing it isn’t a matter of cleaning out the ponds and putting it back the way it was.

In fact, if that was done, the hatchery wouldn’t operate for long.  

“The second that we would start producing fish we would be immediately shut down,” says Adam Miller, who oversees the state’s five fish hatcheries.

That’s because the old hatchery was out of compliance with federal water quality laws. Even before Irene it was clear the hatchery would need to be modernized to meet current regulations because of the discharge of fish waste and chemicals used at the hatchery.  

The state says a replacement facility that meets clean water standards will cost nearly $4.5 million and it asked FEMA to pick up 90 percent of that. FEMA denied that request.

FEMA’s argument is that Irene didn’t cause the hatchery to go out of compliance, so it’s not the agency’s responsibility.

Central to both arguments is a clause in the legislation that authorizes FEMA to reimburse disaster damage.

The clause says repairs will be in “conformity with current applicable codes, specifications, and standards…”

But there are conditions and FEMA says the state has failed to meet them as outlined in its decision.

In its appeal the state says FEMA’s determination is "confounding, illogical and misleading,” arguing that the clear intent of the law is that FEMA fund repairs that are in compliance.

The state says it's not a matter of whether the hatchery met standards before Irene.

Inside one of the hatchery buildings there’s a series of long aqua colored tanks. A few contain darting, sliver-sized fish that the hatchery is raising for another facility.

Miller says whether or not the FEMA appeal succeeds, the hatchery will be rebuilt because of its economic importance to the state. Miller says the other hatcheries are at capacity, and without Roxbury, the state’s fishing isn’t as good as it could be.

“Because Roxbury is down, we’re seeing a 30 percent shortage in the amount of fish we need to stock in state waters as far as yearling trout go,” he says.

That’s another argument the state makes in its appeal: That without the Roxbury hatchery there’s a potential economic impact on Vermont’s fishing tourism industry.