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Vermont Legislature Passes Water Quality And Lake Champlain Cleanup Legislation

Pat Bradley/WAMC

The Vermont House and Senate have agreed on a water quality bill and moved the legislation to the desk of Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. The governor is expected to sign what he's calling the most significant clean water bill in the state's history.

Governor Shumlin made legislation to clean up Lake Champlain and the waters of Vermont a priority in his State of the State address in January.   “Anyone who spent time on Lake Champlain this past season experienced firsthand the heartbreaking reality that it’s suffering now more than ever. Legislative action is critical.”

A legislative conference committee this week fulfilled the governor’s challenge and passed H.35.  The bill targets phosphorus and other pollutants coming from farms, roads, roofs and parking lots.

Sierra Club Vermont Chapter Chair Mark Nelson says the bill is important because it will accomplish three things.   “It clearly identifies what requirements need to be in place to address the phosphorus runoff that’s coming from various sources. Farms, impervious surfaces, wastewater treatment plants.  So it now puts in place very clear requirements that have to be met by those sources. In addition it provides funding for the agencies that will be overseeing the implementation of these requirements. And third it now provides a mechanism for enforcement.”

The bill provides about $10 million in state funding.  Agencies will be able to hire more state personnel for technical assistance and regulatory enforcement. Friends of Northern Lake Champlain Executive Director Denise Smith believes the  bill begins to establish a framework to begin work on implementing practices and projects that address water quality issues.  “This is a really comprehensive bill, something that we’ve never had before. What this bill does is really help us address how we function on our landscape and what we can and cannot do.  There’s going to be some new rules that need to be established. There’s a lot of work that still has to be done. But it provides the frame work for us to be able, legally, for us to be able to get some of this work done.”

The EPA warned the state that if action was not taken to further control pollution in Lake Champlain, they would mandate actions.  Lake advocates feel the legislation’s passage will stem further intervention by the federal agency. Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori Fisher:  “EPA is always going to have a role, and an oversight role that’s very important. I think this legislation was a very important measure for Vermont to take.  Without it I think that EPA would have taken over the cleanup plan without Vermont moving forward like this.  Vermont really needed to say we have a structure in place and we also have funding and we’re putting forward state monies in order to implement this plan.”

Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers is not enthusiastic over the passage of the water quality bill.  He sees it as all show and no substance.   “The bill did not include any remediation.  The bill did not adequately fund the stated purpose. It clearly identifies the problem but the vast majority of the work still remains in rulemaking within the agencies over the course of years. And that’s been the case all along.  We didn’t necessarily need this bill to address the lack of a strong anti-degradation rule or to strengthen stormwater policy.”

The primary revenues to fund the programs would come from a property transfer tax.

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