EPA says state needs to do more to clean up Lake Champlain

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(Host) The Environmental Protection Agency has taken Vermont to task for not doing more to keep phosphorus out of Lake Champlain.

The EPA says Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation has to write stricter permits and spend more money to deal with the problem.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, state officials say the E-P-A is off-base in its critique.

(Sneyd) State government has tried, under a series of gubernatorial administrations, to clean up Lake Champlain and the rivers and streams that feed it.

Under Governor Jim Douglas, the effort is known as Clean and Clear. Environmental Conservation Commissioner Laura Pelosi says the program is showing results.

(Pelosi) “Vermont is really leading the nation in addressing water quality issues, such as non-point source pollution control.”

(Sneyd) The EPA has a different view.

Scientists from EPA’s New England regional headquarters say some of the efforts have been worthwhile.

The state and cities and towns have spent millions to clean up sewage treatment plants. Money and attention have been devoted to preventing runoff from farms.

But the EPA’s Dave Deegan says more needs to be done because phosphorous levels aren’t falling as they should.

(Deegan) “I think there’s been a lot of effort put into trying to address the concern. At the same time we have not seen reductions in phosphorous and other nutrients that would be necessary to say that we’re making the kind of progress that we’d like to see.”

(Sneyd)  In an April 30th letter to Pelosi, a top regional EPA official was stronger. He wrote – quote — “We remain concerned about the lack of progress toward seeing water quality improvements in most lake segments.”

Mike Rapacz of the Conservation Law Foundation says it’s about time the EPA got tough with the state.

(Rapacz) "I believe that the agency has an awful lot of work to do in terms of really recognizing how to implement a large water body cleanup, how to implement the Clean Water Act, how to prioritize their work and how to pursue funding to all of the above in a proper manner.”

(Sneyd)  Excess phosphorus is a problem because it upsets the natural balance in the lake. It can cause oxygen levels in the water to plummet and it leads to toxic algae blooms in the summer.

Clean and Clear was supposed to tackle the problem, especially the so-called "non-point” phosphorus pollution that washes from farms or parking lots.

The EPA’s critique also pointed out specific sources of pollution, like sewage treatment.

St. Albans wants to renew its treatment plant permit. The EPA says the new permit should meet tougher standards.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pelosi says the EPA is focused too narrowly on pollution at treatment plants.

(Pelosi) "The state, from our perspective, is in a much better position to be able to identify what those priorities are. And for us, here in Vermont, it is non-point source pollution. Even eliminating the phosphorus loading from wastewater treatment facilities is not going to allow us to reach our water quality standards. So our focus really does need to be non-point source pollution control.”

(Sneyd) But the EPA says it’s concerned about all sources of pollution.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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