Circ critics raise new questions in Water Board hearing

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(Host) Opponents of the proposed Circumferential Highway want to know why the state decided not to study endangered fish species that may be affected by the project. The issue surfaced on Wednesday as the Water Resources Board heard an appeal of pollution permits needed for the next leg of the Chittenden County project.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The Water Resources Board hears appeals of state water quality permits. And the permits at issue for the Circumferential Highway regulate the stormwater that will flow off the new pavement and ultimately into nearby streams. Environmentalists who oppose the project have asked for over a year whether the state has examined the project’s impact on rare and endangered species in the Winooski River.

At a board hearing on Wednesday, a witness for the state acknowledged that the Agency of Natural Resources had changed its position on the endangered species issue at the request of the state Transportation Agency.

On October 17, a state biologist said in a draft letter that the eastern sand darter – a rare fish species – has been observed downstream of the project. But he said the only way to be sure is to actually survey the river. But the final draft, written three days later, does not include this recommendation. Rich Ranaldo, the project manager for the highway, says the letter was changed because it went beyond what the Transportation Agency had asked.

(Ranaldo) “We didn’t ask for a survey or for their opinion on whether a survey should be done or not. Our request was: do the species exist in the stream? That’s all that we asked. And we wanted a focused response. And that’s all that we received in the final letter.”

(Dillon) Mark Sinclair, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, says the Transportation Agency has pressured the environmental agency to downplay the potential impacts from the project.

(Sinclair) “It’s clear that VTrans has not done its homework. It’s not gone and looked at what important aquatic species will be harmed by the increased pollution coming off the highway. And it’s just bad government from my perspective. The ANR is not rigorously regulating the state Transportation Agency like it does private developers. There is a double standard.”

(Dillon) A lawyer for the state says Sinclair was trying to grandstand on the issue. The lawyer said the Agency of Natural Resources ultimately concluded that it’s unlikely the new highway will harm threatened or endangered species.

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

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