Gregory Harriman Who Regulates Vermont's Water?

Two Vermont agencies share responsibility for regulating water pollution from farms. But public records reviewed by VPR show the bureaucratic divide can lead to confusion among regulators, as well as delays in enforcement cases – delays that sometimes cause pollution to flow unchecked for months.

This photo, taken by a Vermont Agency of Agriculture inspector in May 2019 on the Vorsteveld farm, shows the kind of documentation state agencies do when they respond to complaints about agricultural water pollution.

The public is increasingly sounding the alarm about farms polluting waterways. Here’s a message someone left with the state after seeing manure running directly into water:

“You got acres of it! And you got an active stream running right through the middle of it. It’s just above freezing, it’s melting and going into the stream, which then goes into the St. Albans Bay, as you well know.”

Farm waste – carrying phosphorus pollution – has fed toxic algae blooms on Lake Champlain and threatens other lakes around Vermont. And the taxpayers have invested heavily to get the water clean. Since 2017, the state has dedicated $25 million to help farms reduce pollution in the Lake Champlain watershed.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce has estimated it could cost almost $1 billion, and take 20 years, to fully clean the lake.

Another caller left a voicemail, wanting to know what the state was doing now about the runoff he saw flowing into streams in Franklin County:

“And why we’re letting these people pollute the rivers, and eventually the Lake Champlain basin? Instead of spending millions of dollars on lake clean-up, let’s take care of it at the source.”

Farm regulation is divided between two state agencies. The Agency of Agriculture inspects and permits farms, and it can also help farms find funding. But if water pollution leaves the land and runs directly into a ditch or stream, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) takes over.

But it’s hardly a perfect partnership. Records show that cases are tossed back and forth between the two bureaucracies, even when evidence seems to be compelling. Sometimes pollution can continue to flow for months. In some cases, despite repeated warnings and legal sanctions, the same violations repeatedly re-occur.

Since 2017, the agriculture agency has referred 88 suspected cases of farm waste entering waterways to ANR. Twenty-nine cases – about a third – are still open at ANR. Four cases were sent to the Vermont Attorney General's office for possible legal action.

Kim Greenwood is a deputy commissioner at ANR, and she said her agency often would wait until the agriculture agency had tried to help the farmer by, say, getting funds to build a new manure pit.

“What we found is that, unfortunately, that process can take a really long time,” she said. “If you are waiting on a grant, let’s say for $300,000 or whatever the cost is for a new manure pit, that could be a long period of time. And in the meantime that discharge is continuing to occur. And it was really slowing down our ability to be able to close those incidents out.”

Yet sometimes cases get stalled because the two agencies don’t agree on what to do. Last May, an agriculture agency inspector visited a large farm owned by the Vorsteveld family in Addison County.

According to records, the inspector saw farm waste coming out of a culvert and going into a ditch that flowed toward the Dead Creek and Lake Champlain. The agriculture agency told the Vorstevelds to fix the problem, and sent a report and photos over to ANR.

But state records show one month later, ANR closed the case, having never visited the farm. The agency has since said it’s taking a second look at the farm, eight months after the initial report.

Greenwood said in an email the decision was based on a more recent referral from the agriculture agency. She said the split jurisdiction over water quality can get confusing for all involved.

“Having one body who is regulating farms would certainly help with that, so then the issues would be dealt with at the moment that they’re found,” Greenwood said.

Article originally posted by VPR.ORG

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