ANR staff appeal secretary’s Clyde River dam decision

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(Host) A group that represents government employees has appealed a state water quality permit for a dam on the Clyde River. The group says Vermont’s secretary of natural resources over-ruled his staff and allowed more lenient permit conditions.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Host) Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility represents whistleblowers and other government workers at natural resources agencies. The New England chapter of the watchdog group has stepped into a fight over a Northeast Kingdom river.

The state Agency of Natural Resources recently approved a permit that Citizens Communications of Connecticut needs for a dam on the Clyde River near Newport. Citizens is a communications and electric utility. It wants to re-license the dam so it can sell the facility to another company.

Kyla Bennett, a lawyer and biologist with the public employees group, says state biologists had recommended that more water be left in the river to protect fish. She says Agency Secretary Scott Johnstone overruled his own experts in the case:

(Bennett) “The reason I know that is we did a public records for the records on this. And we have numerous memos and documents that show that not only were the staff at VANR recommending much higher flows, but that they were essentially saying that the decision was a political one, not a scientific one, and that they were being ordered to change their opinions.”

(Dillon) Johnstone, at the Agency of Natural Resources, says that most of the time he does side with his scientists. But he says in this case, there’s not much evidence that fish could even swim up the 1,800 feet of river in question. He says he had to weigh the river habitat against the electricity that the project produces.

(Johnstone) “So for an 1,800-foot reach, we’d be losing renewable energy in Vermont in the theoretical, hope that a fish could make it up through. I don’t think that’s what the Vermont water quality standards intend.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Northeast Kingdom chapter of Trout Unlimited have also appealed the Clyde River permit. Kelly Lowry is a VNRC lawyer. He says it’s not Johnstone’s job to balance habitat versus electricity generation.

(Lowry) “First and foremost, the secretary’s job in this licensing process is to determine whether the project as permitted complies with water quality standards. That has nothing to do with economics, it has nothing to do with energy portfolios. It’s a very simple question: Will it comply with water quality standards. His staff is telling him: No, at this flow, it will not.”

(Dillon) But Johnstone says the project does meet the standards. The issue will now be up to the Water Resources Board to decide.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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