Administration defends lake cleanup plan, but environmentalists are critical

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(Host) The Douglas Administration wants lawmakers to repeal a law that could lead to tougher pollution targets for Lake Champlain.

The repeal idea has the support of business groups and some lake communities. But environmentalists say tighter controls are needed because the current clean up effort is not working fast enough.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The push to repeal the lake law came just after the state released an audit that officials say shows some early success in cleaning up Lake Champlain.

Governor Jim Douglas talked about the audit at his weekly news conference.

(Douglas) “I thought it was very encouraging, very positive, a few areas that require some additional attention. But several of the programs that we have in place were listed as national models.”

(Dillon) But the 135-page audit of the governor’s Clean and Clear program also called into question whether the $65 million effort is working as planned.

The focus of Clean and Clear is to reduce phosphorus levels in the big lake. Phosphorus runs off from farm fields and dirty city streets. It’s a fertilizer, and it feeds the toxic algae that sometimes choke the lake’s shallow bays.

According to the audit – which was required by the Legislature – phosphorus pollution has not declined in recent years. In fact, the levels have been increasing.

The audit did say some of the programs serve as national models. But it went on to point out – quote – "there is not evidence that these programs are sufficient for meeting phosphorus reductions."

Douglas says he prefers to focus on the good news in the audit.

(Douglas) “You can always look at a long document and find something to highlight. I chose to highlight the conclusion that there are several programs that we’ve put in place that are exemplary.”

(Dillon) The audit is one piece of the legislative debate about Lake Champlain. The other is the administration’s effort to repeal a bill passed last year that re-opens the state’s phosphorus reduction plan. The plan, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, sets a total maximum daily load for phosphorus, or TMDL.

Julie Moore directs the state’s Clean and Clear program. She says officials need to stay focused on current clean up efforts.

(Moore) “We really feel that reopening the TMDL right now would require us to kind of divert from where we’re headed in terms of developing and implementing projects to improve water quality in Lake Champlain.”

(Dillon) But Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, says lawmakers should reject the repeal idea.

(Iarrapino) “And we think legislators should be alarmed by the fact that the audit concludes that we haven’t significantly reduced pollution and that pollution is going up. And so it makes all the sense in the world for the legislature to hold firm on being more aggressive in enhancing our efforts and really looking at the audit to take away and figure out what we’ve been doing wrong and what we need to fix going forward.”

(Dillon) CLF argues that some towns along the lake could do more to reduce phosphorus coming from sewage treatment plants. But the Vermont League of Cities and Towns – along with the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce – say that’s a very expensive solution. The groups also want the legislature to roll back last year’s Lake Champlain law

Lawmakers may not act right away. Chittenden Senator Virginia Lyons, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says she’s in no rush to repeal the law.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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