State to inspect large dairy farms

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(Host) The state plans to inspect Vermont’s largest diary farms this spring to make sure they’re in compliance with federal clean water rules.

Critics say the state’s move is too little too late – and they welcome a planned visit by the Environmental Protection Agency, to make sure the farms aren’t polluting the water.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Runoff from farms carried into streams and lakes has long been a concern. Nutrients in the runoff contribute to water quality problems in Lake Champlain.

Earlier this year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency signaled its desire to make sure large agricultural operations are in compliance with the clean water act. The EPA says it plans to visit four Vermont farms.

Now, Vermont Agriculture and Agency of Natural Resources officials say they’ll jointly inspect 19 dairy farms next month, in advance of the EPA visit.

These are farms with more than 750 cows.

George Crombie is Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. Crombie says he want to make sure that enforcement of the Clean Water Act remains in the state’s – not the federal government’s – hands.

(Crombie) “I think our position with EPA is going to be that the State of Vermont, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture has this under control and we can best manage the situation.”

(Zind) Crombie says the state wants to help the farms make sure they’re in compliance with clean water rules.

He says this is the first time the state is inspecting these large dairy operations and it’s not known if any are in violation of clean water rules. Others disagree.

(Kilian) “There’s no question that there are large dairies in Vermont that are violating the Clean Water Act right now.”

(Zind) Christopher Kilian is Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation. Kilian says the only reason the state has decided to conduct the inspections is because federal authorities are planning to come to Vermont.

Kilian says Vermont lags behind most of the country in enforcing the Clean Water Act. His group has been urging the EPA to take a look at Vermont’s large farms.

ANR Secretary Crombie says it’s important that the state be the one to enforce clean water rules to prevent more punitive measures by the federal government. Otherwise farmers could be hurt.

(Crombie) “We need to work with the agriculture community in Vermont. We need to improve our water quality, but we don’t think we should do it with a hammer and chisel, that we should really work with the farming community and we think we can get the best results by doing that.”

(Zind) The Conservation Law Foundation’s Kilian disagrees that enforcement by the EPA instead of the state would hurt Vermont farmers. He says strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act encourages good farming practices. Without it, he says

(Kilian) “You allow the worst actors to gain a major economic advantage and make it more difficult for those that want to comply and want to spend more money on compliance to compete.”

(Zind) The state plans to inspect the 19 large farms in May. It’s likely the EPA inspections, when they do happen, will be unannounced.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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