Agriculture committee hears farm pollution testimony

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(Host) This year, Vermont lawmakers are examining how to regulate large farms. On Tuesday, they took testimony from a farm neighbor who said that the state lacks the oversight to control agriculture pollution.

VPR’s John Dillon has been following the progress of the bills.

(Dillon) Ricka McNaughton of East Montpelier sat in the witness chair at the House Agriculture Committee and laid out what she calls a cautionary tale.

McNaughton lives near a large farm that’s regulated by the state Agency of Agriculture. She says the agency gave the farm a permit in 2001, despite evidence that the farm had polluted its neighbors’ wells with nitrates, which are found in manure, and Atrazine, a common herbicide.

(McNaughton) “The state had gone and issued the permit behind closed doors at the height of the contamination problem they had known about for more than four years. We asked the Agriculture Department why in heavens weren’t we notified or given the opportunity for input. And the coordinator of the program answered the statute was expressly written to preclude notice to neighbors and to preclude a process for public input.”

(Dillon) McNaugton says she’s a reluctant neighborhood activist. She told the committee she and others in East Montpelier have tried to work closely with the farm’s owners. The owners have recently changed how frequently they spread the manure on nearby fields. But McNaughton says the state has been a reluctant regulator.

(McNaughton) “Unless we go to a court of law, and sue our neighbors it has to come from somewhere else. And I can tell you here and now we don’t want to go to court and we don’t want to sue our neighbors. We want to fix this.”

(Dillon) Austin Cleaves, a partner in the farm operation, sat at the other end of the committee room. Cleaves says the farm bought bottled water for the neighbors for more than two years, but then stopped. He says the owners now want to know if the pollution came from the neighbors’ own septic systems.

(Cleaves) “There are a whole bunch of issues out there that haven’t been, to my satisfaction, resolved. And we felt I guess that this as far as we wanted to go as far as being as a good neighbor.”

(Dillon) McNaughton says that the herbicide Atrazine wouldn’t come from home septic systems, and that experts have told her that the amount of nitrates in the well water far exceed what could come from household waste.

The Agriculture Committee is considering extending legal protection for farmers from lawsuits brought by neighbors. It’s also looking at giving the state new authority to regulate large farms.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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