David Mears, Director of the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School, at VTDigger’s panel on water quality. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
BURLINGTON — Agency of Natural Resources chief Julie Moore gamely insisted that Vermont’s worsening water pollution, and the bacterial outbreaks caused by that pollution across the state, are difficult issues that will require time and patience.
Speaking at a water quality forum at the Flynn Center Thursday evening, Moore’s position drew ardent criticism from the former head of the Department of Environmental Conservation who now runs Vermont Law School’s environmental program, as well as the Vermont director of New England’s leading environmental-law advocacy group.
The problem requires either enforcement of the law or funding, or both, Moore’s interlocutors said. Moore has notoriously failed to provide enough of either, they said.
The talk took place in the wake of the months-long closure of Lake Carmi, and after numerous and wide-ranging beach closures on Lake Champlain, caused by toxic bacterial blooms from farm runoff and other sources. It also occurred less than a month after Gov. Phil Scott’s administrators failed to come up with a statutorily-required recommendation for a long-term funding source to clean up the lake.
Joining Moore on the panel were David Mears, the director of Vermont Law School’s environmental program and the former head of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and Chris Kilian, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation. The Conservation Law Foundation filed the lawsuit that led to the EPA-mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain.
The three proposed three very different approaches.
The state’s politicians and appointees should simply follow the clean water laws that are on the books, which they’re not currently upholding, Kilian said.
Moore provided the most forceful counterpoint to Kilian’s argument. She maintained that the state’s politicians and environmental regulators are already working hard to reverse the effects of decades of water pollution.
Mears said the state needs a dedicated source of funding for clean water efforts, and said polluters and politicians both need to be held accountable.
Moore came under fire in recent weeks when a group of Scott’s administrators led by her failed to identify a suitable source of long-term funding for Vermont’s clean-water efforts, as had been requested by the Legislature.
Instead, Moore’s group said that no new taxes or fees would be needed to deal with the problem for several years. Her stance coincides with Scott’s campaign pledge against raising taxes.
Julie Moore, Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, at VTDigger’s panel on water quality. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
The amount of money required to comply with state and federal water quality laws, which state Treasurer Beth Pearce has estimated at $1.2 billion over the next 20 years, remains undiminished, Moore’s group found, but the group decided nevertheless that it’s best to wait another five years before beginning to raise a gap in state funding of approximately $25 million a year.
Kilian didn’t spend much time on this failure. Instead, he accused Moore — who under the Douglas administration led a $100 million water quality program — of failing to exercise the authority Vermonters have invested in her to uphold the state’s environmental laws.
Moore isn’t alone in this failure, but he said she should feel more of a sense of urgency about the problem.
“On the way up here I was running through how many agency secretaries I’ve had this conversation with, and I came up with 11 — which is on average one every two years since I started working in the state — and countless Department of Environmental Conservation commissioners, multiple governors, multiple federal administrations, and the one thing I would ask of my colleagues at the table is to jettison the message that we have to be patient,” Kilian said.
“To stop telling people that we need to wait 30 years, or 50 years — ‘It took a long time for it to get this polluted, and it’s going to take a long time, so the green water that’s coming out of your tap on Lake Carmi, you’re just going to have to live with that because it’s really hard and it takes a long time’ — that is the wrong message,” he said.
Chris Kilian (center), Vice President and Director of the Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, at VTDigger’s panel on water quality. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Killian said meanwhile “all of these waters have become more and more and more foul, and we’ve studied and re-studied, and studied it again, and adopted flawed studies that everyone knew was flawed and had to be overturned by federal judges after millions of dollars of litigation,” Kilian said. “It’s got to stop.”
Polluters, Kilian said, must pay for the harms they cause to public belongings, such as the waters of the state. If polluters can’t afford the harms they cause, they should go out of business.
Mears took a more tempered approach. Although there are a few identifiable major polluters, such as farms and paved spaces, everyone in Vermont contributes to the problem to some extent, Mears said. Those contributions add up, even if they’re hard to attribute to specific individuals.
That’s why Vermonters should focus on figuring out an equitable way to fund the steps necessary to reduce pollution, rather than simply pointing fingers at farmers and parking lots, he said.
“I have committed my career to the concept that the policy of ‘polluter pays’ is good fundamental policy — it’s a policy we adopted starting in the late ‘60s and have adhered to, to greater or lesser degrees, since,” Mears said. “But stormwater runoff is a harder one to puzzle over, when you talk about ‘Who is the polluter?’ True, the large box stores, and the gas stations, and the farms are all polluters, but all of us have a responsibility, all of us that drive on the roads, that use these facilities, that have put fertilizer in our yards, that have homes and driveways — so we need to think about funding sources.
“We need to talk about sources of funding that do go to the places of impact — which are not just a set of box stores,” he said. “It also includes all of us that have driveways, roofs and the like, and that drive on our roads.”
Moore didn’t single out funding or enforcement — or any other approach, but rather identified many and varied conditions and qualities and items that would be needed in addition to patience and understanding.
What’s needed, she said at one point, is akin to a three-legged stool, propped up by technical know-how, and by “financial capability, and that’s one we’re building, and also the political will.”
Vermont’s waters are generally in excellent shape, Moore said, but they are at risk. The risks go beyond the phosphorus pollution that’s driving cyanobacteria outbreaks across the state, she said — the risks include industrial practices that poisoned hundreds of wells in Bennington County.
The state needs commitment to a long-term effort, she said. State agencies need to commit to doing measurements, and accurate ones, she said.
The root of the problem, Moore said, is weather, and the solution lies in nature, and there are innumerable examples of such solutions already in place around the state.
“My agency is deeply engaged in the science and engineering of water quality and water quality solutions, and we know that the only way to figure out what’s happening on our planet, in our state, in our communities, right down to our streams, rivers, lakes and ponds, is to measure it, and to measure it systematically and as quantitatively as possible, and we need to track change year over year,” Moore said.
“Much of Vermont’s water pollution… is attributable to wet weather events — it’s stormwater runoff, snowmelt and flood-related erosion, and we also know that weather is variable from year to year, so sometimes the trends we’re looking for can be really hard to discern in the noise of the variability and weather,” she said.
“Further, many of the best strategies for addressing these wet-weather pollution sources rely on natural solutions, allowing woody vegetation to re-establish along our stream banks and rivers, installing rain gardens and what we often refer to as ‘green infrastructure’ practices, to intercept and store stormwater, and plugging ditches on marginal farmland to allow the wetlands that were once there to re-form and re-vegetate, and we have examples of all those projects and more on our landscape,” Moore said.
The forum was was moderated and introduced by VTDigger founder Anne Galloway.
Hear highlights from Thursday’s panel on this week’s Deeper Dig podcast:
Read the story on VTDigger here: Critics question Moore’s call for patience on cleanup.