House Committee Hears Testimony on Stormwater

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(Host) The legislature has waded into a legal controversy over water pollution and new development. On Friday, a House committee took testimony on a stormwater bill that is backed by business lobbyists.

But state officials and environmentalists say the bill has problems – and may conflict with federal law.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Sound of people in a hearing room.)

(Dillon) So many lobbyists and witnesses showed up to testify at the House Natural Resources Committee that the lawmakers packed up and moved to a bigger room. What drew the crowd was a bill that rewrites the way the state regulates stormwater pollution.

Stormwater is the greasy, sediment-filled runoff that flows off parking lots and roads and has damaged streams and Lake Champlain. It’s no longer an obscure pollution issue.

Last summer, the state Water Resources Board ruled that Lowe’s Home Center could not get a stormwater permit unless it showed that its runoff would not do more harm to a polluted stream.

Lowe’s eventually got its permit for its South Burlington store. But business groups complain that the board decision raised unpredictable hurdles. Some have called the ruling a moratorium on new development.

Ernie Pomerleau, a developer based in Chittenden County, told the committee that businesses now face an uncertain regulatory future:

(Pomerleau) “We don’t know the rules. There are no rules and we’re struggling to find rules. What this bill does is, re-establishes some base guidelines¿. All we need is some rules. We can’t play in a state that has no rules. I’m really serious about this. This is really driving us bonkers.”

(Dillon) The business community says some big projects are at stake. IBM, Vermont’s largest private employer, wants the state to build the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County. But the road has an expired stormwater permit and it will now have to meet the legal standard set by the water board.

The bill before the House committee was drafted by a business lobbyist. The bill says that if developers use what’s called “best management practices” to treat stormwater, then those projects automatically comply with water quality standards.

Chris Recchia is commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the bill conflicts with the federal Clean Water Act. The federal law says the test of clean water is in the stream, not whether a particular best management treatment technology is used.

(Recchia) “They can’t declare that by doing something that really isn’t meeting federal law that it will meet federal law simply by putting that in statute. So in some respects, gravity is working all the time, a declaration that gravity doesn’t exist isn’t going to change that. And this is sort of along those lines.”

(Dillon) Recchia says he hopes to come up with a substitute bill for the committee to consider. Environmentalists agree with the state that the bill has problems. Staff at the Water Resources Board also share the state’s concerns.

Bill Bartlett is the Board’s executive director. He challenges the claim that the Board’s ruling put the brakes on development:

(Bartlett) “The Board did not rewrite state law. It simply applied existing state law to the facts in the case. I don’t believe that the Board’s ruling in Lowe’s is a moratorium. I would point out that the one project that this law has been applied to has gotten a permit, so far one out of one has been approved.”

(Dillon) A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate. But after Friday’s hearings, state officials and the business groups may work together to rewrite the legislation.

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

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