Senate bill aims to address slow clean up of Lake Champlain

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(Host) Lawmakers frustrated with the slow clean up of Lake Champlain are calling for an audit of the state’s pollution control efforts.

A bill in the Senate also sets tighter standards for sewage treatment plants. And it requires the state to rework its major water quality plan for the lake.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Twenty years ago Vermont Law School Professor Patrick Parenteau was the state Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. He was with Governor Madeleine Kunin when she and New York Governor Mario Cuomo motored out into the middle of the lake to sign a historic agreement.

(Parenteau) “I remember distinctly the photo op, and the press conference, and the statement, the unequivocal statement: we will have a clean Lake Champlain in 20 years.”

(Dillon) It didn’t happen. Almost every summer, high levels of nutrients – phosphorus from farms and city streets – feed algae blooms that choke the lake’s northern bays.

Parenteau says there are parts of Lake Champlain that are worse than Lake Erie was when that lake was declared dead in the 1960s.

(Parenteau) “The good news is that in many respects Lake Erie is back. The bad news is that Lake Champlain is not.”

(Dillon) Parenteau is a tough critic of Vermont’s pollution control efforts. He says the phosphorus reduction standards the state now uses for sewage treatment plants are too low. And he says the major clean up program for the lake, which is supposed to set daily limits on pollution, is weak and ineffective. The program is called Total Maximum Daily Load, or T.M.D.L. Parenteau says the T.M.D.L. still allows parts of the lake to violate water quality standards.

(Parenteau) “In my view, this T.M.D.L. is unlawful, illegal.”

(Dillon) The state has a decidedly different take. Canute Dalmasse is deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Agency. He says the T.M.D.L. plan was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, which means it’s legal. Although research shows that parts of the lake are getting dirtier, Dalmasse says the state’s “Clean and Clear” program needs more time to work.

(Dalmasse) “We haven’t been at this very long, all right? The first actual on-the-ground actions with “Clean and Clear” occurred in the summer of 2004. It wasn’t really getting implemented until 2005. The data that you’re looking at, a lot of it precedes the whole program, right? That said, it looks like a bigger task than we had anticipated.”

(Dillon) The Senate Natural Resources Committee isn’t satisfied. Every member of the committee supports a bill that requires the state to re-open the T.M.D.L. The legislation limits the phosphorus coming from sewage treatment plants and it calls for an audit of the “Clean and Clear” program.

Chittenden Senator Virginia Lyons chairs the committee.

(Lyons) “It’s been 20 years, you know, and at some point you say this is enough. Enough is enough. Let’s do it right. Let’s make sure that we have the right standards in place, the T.M.D.L. Let’s make sure that when we invest money that we’re investing it in prevention and that we’re also achieving the clean-up. Now we have to achieve even more clean-up.”

(Dillon) The committee plans to hear from the Environmental Protection Agency to get its view on the clean up of Lake Champlain.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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