The Year in Review: 2006 – Part 3, Agriculture and the Environment

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(Host) Vermont is an agricultural state, and a state that takes its sense of duty to protect the environment very seriously.

Our series of special reports on 2006 continues this afternoon.

In today’s report, VPR’s Steve Delaney finds that a high percentage of the top stories were about farms, and forests, and clean water.

(Delaney) After a five-year fight over how to manage storm-water runoff, Lowe’s Home Centers got approval to re-start its stalled South Burlington construction project. The company hopes to open its only Vermont location in about a year and a half.

At the end of July, Tom Torti left the post of Natural Resources Secretary, to work for the Chamber of Commerce in Burlington. He had planned to stay until the end of the year, but questions arose about the wisdom of having a department head rule on issues important to his future employers.

At year’s end the job was still open.

(Sounds of marchers)

(Delaney) On the last day of August several hundred marchers left Ripton, headed for Burlington and a rally to oppose global warming. Among them, Warren King of Ripton.

(King) “We’re out here because we believe global warming represents the single most significant threat to the future of our civilization. And we see our federal government not doing a thing about it, and we’re hoping we can change that by a strong enough show of public support.”

(Delaney) And at the end of the year, Democrats in the Legislature said they will take up global warming.

In February the Legislature gave money to schools to buy locally grown food for their lunch and breakfast programs. Royalton’s Rosemary McLaughlin pushed that idea in the House.

(McLaughlin) “This bill will help bring local food to our school children while supporting sustainable agriculture in Vermont. The goal is to engage Vermont youth in becoming lifelong consumers of fresh nutritious foods.”

(Delaney) The program has been judged a success and is being used as a model for national school food service providers.

In the spring, Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant won approval for a power output increase of twenty percent, after a marathon policy and regulatory struggle that began more than three years ago. Critics have never stopped saying it’s unsafe.

Vermont farmers have tried for decades to keep good help in the barns and in the fields, and recently, quietly, they’ve been finding a few good men, and women, south of the border. John Dillon’s series of stories on Mexican farm labor began in January, as some of those workers were being deported.

(Barn sounds)

(Dillon) Back in the barn outside Vergennes, Emilio is finishing up the milking. The native of Chiapas, Mexico, says he has a good situation here in Vermont. The farm provides housing. His only expense is for food.

But his legal status is always an issue. He says it’s frustrating to have to worry about immigration officials every time he goes out to visit friends. And he says he might be able to make more money if he was in the country legally.

(Emilio speaks in Spanish)
(Translator) “Because we don’t have papers, we don’t get paid as much as the Americans. We work about 11 hours. He’s hinting that maybe with legal status, he could get paid a little more.”

(Dillon) The Mexicans in Vermont are following a familiar immigrant path. They have to overcome barriers of law, education, poverty and language as they strive to become recognized members of society. But along the way, they’ve made themselves indispensable to the Vermont farm economy.

(Delaney) In April, it rained. In May too. And by the end of the month, farmers couldn’t plow or plant. Louise Calderwood was the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.

(Calderwood) “Farmers will probably be looking at planting some shorter-day seeds, which means that the yield will be off a bit, but the quality should still be there. We’re, we’re not at crunch time yet.”

(Delaney) Crunch time would come in June when farmers realized they could not grow enough feed crops to get their dairy cows through the winter.

Governor Jim Douglas sought federal disaster relief for dairy farmers.

(Douglas) “Our dairy farmers are facing a perfect storm of low milk prices, high fuel and other energy costs and poor crops or in some cases destroyed crops because of the extended spring rains that we’ve had. So we need to step in.”

(Delaney) Douglas called an agriculture summit in Montpelier to explore ways to help. Mitch Montaine of St. Albans put the farmers’ case in stark terms.

(Montagne) “I don’t have any corn planted. I planted 300 acres and we have to plant it all over again, if we can. I am done most of my haying. It’s rotten hay. It’s no good. We’re facing a mess.”

(Delaney) That mess provoked responses at both the state and federal levels, with dramatically different results.

On the state level, the Legislature moved quickly to make money available. State Senator Bobby Starr was central to that effort.

(Starr) “The administration has got to belly up to the plate on this is. Lip service is great in telling about telling about going to Washington. That’s all fine and dandy but it isn’t putting a bit of bread on anybody’s table.”

(Delaney) In July the state authorized eight and a half million dollars to get farmers by until the Federal help arrived.

But it never did. The Senate never passed the agriculture spending bill, and the emergency relief never came. Democrats say they’ll fix that next year, but it will take months.

Just after the elections, Steve Kerr resigned, loudly, as Agriculture Secretary. He suggested friction within the administration, where he says he was accused of focusing on policy at the expense of politics.

(Kerr) “And these are the words of the Chief of Staff someone less intellectual and more political.’ And I thought, well, okay, that’s cool. That’s not me.”

(Delaney) In mid-December Windham County native Roger Albee moved from the U.S. Agriculture Department to become Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Several years ago International Paper in Ticonderoga decided to try to save money by burning tire-based fuel in its plant.

Vermont, downwind from there, objected early and often that the smoke from those tires would contain toxic heavy metals and carcinogens. Attorney General William Sorrell made the case.

(Sorrell) “No tires will be burned without a fight and a big fight. There’s no reason in our view why we should be the guinea pigs down wind with prevailing westerly winds from this test burn.”

(Delaney) Over Vermont’s strenuous objections in court and in political maneuvering, New York got all its environmental permits, and started the test burn early in November. Donna Wadsworth speaks for IP, and she tried to reassure the downwind doubters.

(Wadsworth) “None of the short term health standards for Vermont or New York will be violated. If we even approach those limits the trial would cease.”

(Delaney) That’s exactly what happened less than a week into the two-week test. The air pollution levels were far higher than IP had forecast. Again, Donna Wadsworth.

(Wadsworth) “Certainly not on the basis of the data that we’ve gathered this past week, we won’t be moving forward with an application.”

(Delaney) And official Vermont refrained, almost entirely, from saying, we told you so.

All through the year, wind power advocates tried to get projects launched in Vermont, and found it tough going. Often the neighbors said tall windmills would wreck the view, or would injure birds, or wouldn’t produce enough power to be worth the investment, or just, not where I can see it.’

Governor Jim Douglas made his position clear early and often, even when chided by his opponent for his opposition to alternative energy sources, especially wind.

(Douglas) “I think an analysis of the benefit of the small amount of power in relative terms that would be generated from industrial wind mills is not worth the aesthetic impact.”

(Delaney) During the summer the Public Service Board denied permission for a wind power project in East Haven, and developer Matthew Rubin threw in the towel, on VPR’s Vermont Edition.

(Rubin) “Vermont’s over. Over, finished and done. Given than New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, California other states want wind turbines. Vermont has taken the other position that we don’t want them. The administration has.”

(Delaney) The Governor’s opposition to big wind power projects turned into the centerpiece of Scudder Parker’s campaign to unseat Douglas, but the issue never got enough traction to become decisive in the election, and Douglas weathered the challenge.

Then in the middle of December the Douglas administration changed its mind, and said it would no longer oppose big wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

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