EPA Objects To Vermont Sewage Treatment Permits

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(Host) The federal Environmental Protection Agency has taken the rare step of reaching across state lines into Vermont in order to protect Long Island Sound – hundreds of miles downstream.

The EPA has formally objected to permits proposed for two Vermont sewage treatment plants. The agency says the Vermont plants would let too much pollution flow down the Connecticut River to the Sound.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) At the EPA’s regional headquarters in Boston, Ken Moraff is deputy director for ecosystem protection.

One ecosystem that’s getting a lot of attention is Long Island Sound. The problem is nitrogen – it’s a nutrient that feeds algae blooms in the Sound. And when the blooms decay, oxygen levels drop, forming dead zones where no aquatic life can survive. Moraff says Connecticut and New York have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to cut nitrogen coming from their sewage treatment plants. And he says Vermont needs to do its part as well.

(Moraff) "We think that given the level of investment that’s being made in the downstream states, that’s at least the upstream states can be expected to do – at least don’t increase your contribution to the problem."

(Dillon) Moraff says the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has drafted two permits for plants in the town of Hartford on the Connecticut River.

The state permits allow for additional flow – and additional nitrogen to be released downstream.

(Moraff) "And what we’re asking Vermont to do is not to make a large capital investment in new treatment facilities, but to manage the plant in a way to reduce nitrogen discharges, or at least so that the increased flow from the treatment plant doesn’t increase the overall load of nitrogen."

(Dillon) The EPA has formally objected to the state’s permits, saying they violate the federal Clean Water Act and will contribute to water pollution in the Sound.

But Vermont officials don’t agree. Justin Johnson is Commissioner of Environmental Conservation.

(Johnson) "We have no problem with limiting the amount of nitrogen in a way that makes sense. But given that we don’t believe that it’s measurable at the other end, we’re very concerned about this idea that we would have to essentially cap everybody because that’s where you would end up, and then spend huge amounts of money to get rid of nitrogen so you could then increase flows."

(Dillon) Moraff at the EPA says this is the first time that anybody can remember that the New England office of the EPA has reached this far upstream to solve a pollution problem. But he says the EPA has taken similar action in other parts of the country.

Chris Kilian of the Conservation Law Foundation praised the EPA action. He says water pollution clearly crosses state lines, and that Vermont needs to be part of the solution.

(Kilian) "So long as regulators like the state of Vermont continue to accept the excuse that one source is just a small part of it, the waterways are going to remain polluted. The reality is that we need to take actions throughout these watersheds if we’re ever going to see water quality standards met."

(Dillon) The EPA and Vermont officials plan to meet later this month to try to work out their differences on the sewage treatment permits.

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

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