Politics and permitting on the Clyde River

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(Host) The Douglas administration’s permit reform plan would give the state environmental agency more power in some permit decisions. But critics say that could make the process more political. The example they cite is the state’s recent review of a Clyde River water quality permit.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Clyde River flows north into Lake Memphremagog in Newport. Before the 1950s, when hydroelectric dams were built on its lower reaches, the Clyde was prized for its huge runs of landlocked salmon. One of the dams washed out in 1994 and was never rebuilt. The salmon started to come back. But upstream, the dams remained.

Last year, biologists at the Agency of Natural Resources wanted the state to force the power company to spill more water over the dam for fish habitat. The technical staff was overruled. John Brabant, an engineer at the agency, told a recent legislative hearing that the orders came from the office of then-Governor Howard Dean:

(Brabant) “A deal was cut to permit the Clyde Dam project. It in no way meets any of the standards, the way that permit was written. The whole thing was contrived. Hundreds of hours of agency staff were spent to contrive this permit process.”

(Dillon) Some of the records that describe the Clyde negotiations are still secret. Governor Dean decided to seal 150 cubic feet of documents for 10 years under the doctrine of executive privilege. His two predecessors kept their executive privilege records secret for just six years.

The Clyde River permit is now on appeal. Kelly Lowry is a lawyer for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. He says the records that are public show that the state scientists wanted much more much water left in the river to support fish habitat:

(Lowry) “The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has had this position since the mid-1990s and so have biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And then in a couple of months time, with no new information coming into the record, there’s a change. And one-third to one-fifth of that flow is actually required after the utility complained.”

(Dillon) The utility, Citizens Communications of Stamford, Connecticut, brought its complaint to Scott Johnstone, who was then the secretary of Natural Resources. The company was represented by Barbara Ripley, a lawyer who had previously held Johnstone’s job. Johnstone says he overruled his staff in order to balance the needs of fish versus the need for renewable power in the Northeast Kingdom.

(Johnstone) “There was no pressure to do anything for Citzens or any other party. It was a balancing of ‘Let’s meet the minimum environmental regs on that for that 1,500-foot reach’ and ‘Let’s also make sure we have power.'”

(Dillon) Kelly Lowry, the environmental lawyer, argues that the law doesn’t allow Johnstone to trade water quality for power needs. Lowry says the reform plan proposed by the Douglas administration could allow other environmental reviews to become politicized.

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

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