EPA’s criticism of Lake Champlain cleanup becomes scientific, political debate

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(Host) The Environmental Protection Agency’s criticism about the pace of cleaning up Lake Champlain has become a debate about science – and about politics.

Governor Jim Douglas says it’s another example of the Bush administration’s refusal to effectively deal with environmental issues.

But as VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, Democrat Gaye Symington sides with the EPA and says it’s Douglas who has failed the environment.

(Sneyd) In an election year, politics can often trump science. So it didn’t take long before the politicians tried to take the EPA’s report and turn it to their advantage.

Governor Jim Douglas wrote an angry letter to EPA headquarters in Washington, placing blame for environmental failings with President Bush.

Douglas wrote that the EPA criticisms were “out of touch, scientifically baseless and another indication of this administration’s unwillingness to provide effective national leadership on environmental issues.”

Douglas’ commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Laura Pelosi, delivered the same message on VPR’s Vermont Edition.

(Pelosi) “EPA unfortunately is being, I think, reactionary. We have been doing this kind of work in the state of Vermont since 2002 and have been really pushing EPA to help us identify strategies that we can employ at the state level, the regional level and then nationally.”

(Sneyd) For Gaye Symington, the EPA report fit perfectly into her narrative for why she should replace Jim Douglas as governor.

Standing on the Burlington waterfront with a ferry boat blaring in the background, she says Douglas is unwilling to listen to the science.

(Symington) “Jim Douglas’ response to this was to attack the EPA and continue to ignore its findings. What he should be doing and what I will do as governor is partner with the EPA, take them up on their offer of help, to make sure that we are getting results.”

(Sneyd) What prompted all of the back and forth was a letter that the EPA’s Boston regional office wrote to Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

The regional scientists expressed serious concerns about Vermont’s progress in keeping phosphorus out of the lake.

There’s no debate, even among the politicians, that phosphorus is bad for Lake Champlain. It’s a fertilizer that can help lawns or farm crops grow.

But in the water, it helps to choke out plants that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. And it promotes growth of algae that, in the summer, blooms into a toxic soup.

The questions that the scientists are trying to answer are how much phosphorus flows into the lake? Where does it come from? And how can it be reduced?

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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