House endorses higher penalties for environmental violations

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(Host) The Vermont House has passed legislation that raises penalties for violating Vermont’s environmental laws.

But lawmakers weakened provisions that would have given the public a greater role in enforcement cases.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Westminster Democrat David Deen said when lawmakers began looking at environmental enforcement this year, they got some solid examples of why the law needs changing.

An environmental group, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, released a study that looked at problems with construction stormwater permits. The research showed numerous violations – and allegedly lax enforcement by the Agency of Natural Resources. Deen said the report added urgency to the debate.

(Deen) "What that gave us was a concrete, researched report to say all is not well in our enforcement at the agency. And it was of concern.”

(Dillon) The enforcement law first went on the books in 1989. So the legislation raises fines. It also allows the state to hold up other permits until a company complies with environmental laws.

(Deen) "We think that’s an important tool to add to the powers of the agency to see that our environment is protected.”

(Dillon) The bill also says the agency should post pending enforcement settlements on its Web site. But environmental groups were disappointed that other provisions that would have allowed greater public participation were not included.

Anthony Iarrapino is a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

(Iarrapino) "There’s no comment opportunity at all, and so that’s really not a meaningful step in terms of day-lighting those behind-closed-doors negotiations with polluters that too often result in slap-on-the-wrist penalties. We were hoping for something that was much more consistent with what the U.S. EPA in terms of giving citizens the opportunity to input in a way we feel the Clean Water Act requires.”

(Dillon) The bill is now pending in the Senate.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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