Who’s the polluter?

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(Host) The poet Robert Burns once asked, “Oh, would some Power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” Commentator Allen Gilbert applies the sentiment to an environmental issue.

(Gilbert) Acid rain, smoggy summer haze. Midwest power plants and other polluters get blamed for causing these conditions in Vermont. And well they should. The pollution from sources far beyond our borders is picked up by prevailing winds, and lands here — fouling our air, dirtying our water, and damaging our trees.

Vermont and other Eastern states have filed lawsuits to try to stop the pollution. The Midwest states, and the federal government, don’t seem to care. What don’t they understand?

Well, imagine if the tables were turned — if Vermont generated the pollution, but it ended up in a place beyond our borders. Would we understand the problem?

I hope so — because Vermont is, in fact, facing this very situation. We’re seen by Quebec as pollution bad guys, just as we here in Vermont view the Midwest as pollution bad guys. It’s not the sort of role we’re used to.

I was in Montreal in late August, and picked up a Montreal Gazette one morning. An editorial proclaimed, “Same Old Story in Missisquoi Bay.” The editorial stated: “Another summer, another story about a beach closure on the Quebec northern shore of Lake Champlain.”

The lake “has the misfortune to be adjacent to agricultural areas and linked directly or indirectly to industry,” the editorial said. Vermont is the culprit, along with New York.

The sources? Pollution from industries such as IBM was noted. But the major sources were identified as run-off from roads and parking lots, and phosphates from farmers’ fields. The editorialist said, “Storm-water treatment permits in Vermont expire with little follow-up from state authorities.” Some dairy farmers strive to cut pollution, but state action is deficient.

Lowe’s, the big-box home improvement store chain, is currently at the center of a controversy in Chittenden County over stormwater run-off. The fight has gotten nasty. Environmentalists say that Lowe’s must stick to water-quality standards; the environmentalists have been excoriated as out-of-state meddlers. Pro-development forces say that opposition to the project demonstrates Vermont’s unfriendliness towards business.

I wonder: Is this the sort of discussion that occurs in a Midwestern state when someone complains about coal-fired power plants?

Missisquoi Bay is an aquatic version of the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The bay is prone to pollution problems. Water doesn’t “flush” in and out of the bay as it does in other parts of the lake; indeed the Vermont Route 78 causeway over the bay was identified by the Gazette editorial as another possible factor in the bay’s problems. The causeway may be trapping water, causing higher levels of pollutants to concentrate there.

Vermonters might see little harm in the construction of one more big box store in the Champlain valley. But to Quebecers, the store has the practical effect of a Midwest power plant. And much as we love the dairy farms that dot our landscape, we need to own up to the fact that farm run-off poses significant environmental problems. We need to respect Quebecers’ rights to enjoy clean water in their part of Lake Champlain.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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