EPA concerned about phosphorus pollution in St. Albans Bay

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(Host) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about the level of phosphorus pollution that the state may allow from the St. Albans sewage treatment plant.

The EPA says St. Albans Bay on Lake Champlain is already polluted, so phosphorus levels should be reduced.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Phosphorus acts as a fertilizer in the lake. It feeds the algae blooms that in the summer sometimes turn Missisquoi and St. Albans Bay into a pea-green toxic soup.

Phosphorus runs off from farm fields and dirty city streets. Those are known as non-point sources.

But it’s also released by sewage treatment plants.

These are point sources of pollution, and they’re regulated through permits under the Clean Water Act. The state runs the permit program, but the EPA provides oversight.

And the EPA has raised questions about the St. Albans permit. Roger Janson is chief of the EPA’s municipal permits branch in Boston.

(Janson) The permit that they have currently drafted and proposed for the …. waste water treatment facility may not be controlling phosphorus in the discharge to an appropriate level for the discharge into St. Albans Bay.

(Dillon) The EPA urged the state to consider tighter phosphorus limits for St. Albans. The EPA pointed out that St. Albans Bay already fails water quality standards, so the state’s proposed limits could cause the bay to get worse.

Chris Kilian is the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

(Kilian) I think it’s very significant that U.S. EPA which has primary responsibility for administering the Clean Water Act is pointing out to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources that the permit conditions that the agency is proposing for the St. Albans Bay plant don’t meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, that they’re too weak.

(Dillon) Julie Moore heads the state’s "Clean and Clear" program that oversees the clean up of Lake Champlain. She says the state is focusing on controlling other sources of pollution, such as the run-off from agriculture and development.

(Moore) Even if you eliminated that discharge from the St. Albans wastewater treatment facility that the bay wouldn’t come close to, it wouldn’t come to close to ensuring the attainment of water quality standards in St. Albans, that there has to be a significant reduction in non-point loads.

(Dillon) Kilian says it makes sense to ratchet down all pollution sources. He questions the legality of the draft permit, since the Clean Water Act doesn’t allow more pollution to go into waters that already fail water quality standards.

(Kilian) It seems unconscionable that the Agency of Natural Resources would weaken phosphorus protections from a wastewater treatment plant in this polluted section of Lake Champlain. And if need be, we are seriously considering challenging this decision if it stands.

(Dillon) Moore says cutting phosphorus from sewage plants is expensive, and the state has to set priorities for how it spends its clean up money.

But Roger Janson, the EPA’s permit chief, says that two-dozen sewer plants in Massachusetts already achieve substantially lower phosphorus levels than Vermont has set for St. Albans.

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

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