EPA sticks to its call for state resources to clean up Lake Champlain

-A A +A

EPA sticks to its call for state resources to clean up Lake Champlain

Thu, 05/15/2014 - 4:12am -- tim

by John Herrick vtdigger.org The Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the state last week calling on the Shumlin administration to come up with money to implement the Lake Champlain cleanup plan. “Turning a good plan into reality hinges on getting more staff and more money for the core work of this plan,” the letter read. “Vermont will need to commit state resources to get the programs up and running.”

In order to comply with the Clean Water Act, Vermont must reduce phosphorus loading into Lake Champlain by 36 percent, the feds say. The state is working with the EPA to draft a new Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan to set phosphorus pollution targets by late summer.

Phosphorus from agricultural and stormwater runoff has been linked to frequent toxic algae blooms in parts of Vermont’s largest lake.

The EPA’s most recent letter calls for a detailed funding plan, greater phosphorus load reductions from wastewater treatment facilities and a signed letter of commitment from the governor to accompany a revised plan by May 30.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“I’m optimistic,” said Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears, the governor’s point person on the issue. “These were not unexpected comments.”

But water quality advocates say the letter indicates the state has not put up the money to staff and implement the basin-wide cleanup plan.

“The message is consistent that the state’s plan did not go far enough,” said Chris Kilian, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

The group has challenged the EPA’s previous TMDL in court under the Clean Water Act. The firm plans to hold the EPA accountable if it fails to issue the state an adequate cleanup plan.

“The reality is if the state fails to demonstrate its commitment to implement the law here, EPA will be required to do so in the state’s stead,” Kilian said. “And it would just put the state further at mercy of the federal government.”

The EPA has said it will tighten restrictions on Vermont’s wastewater treatment facilities to the limits of available technology if the state’s plan doesn’t pass muster. That could cost municipalities millions in upgrades.

Mears said the administration will include in the final plan a funding proposal with state and federal revenue sources. The administration is already pulling strings in Washington, D.C., to source federal funds for the cleanup despite recent cuts to the EPA’s budget.

The state’s most recent plan focuses on nonpoint sources of runoff pollution from farms, forests and cityscapes within the Lake Champlain basin.

But the EPA is requesting that the state reduce phosphorus pollution from wastewater treatment plants as well – a strategy absent from the state’s most recent proposal – especially in areas such as Burlington, Shelburne and St. Albans bays where the EPA says the wastewater pollution contributions are “well above the smaller lake-wide average contribution.”

Mears said the state will consider tightening regulations on wastewater treatment plants in the final plan, but maintains that these regulations would provide less return on investment in terms of phosphorus reduction for each state dollar spent.

The EPA agrees with the state’s 20-year timetable to implement the plan, but the agency is requesting that the plan include a more detailed timetable along with accountability and progress reporting.

The EPA did support the state’s attention to climate change. The state’s climate resilience plan will be carried out in tandem with the Lake Champlain cleanup, officials say. The EPA added, however, that the plan should include details on how infrastructure could be better equipped to handle larger storms.

The EPA is required under the Clean Water Act to clean up the lake. The Conservation Law Foundation supports the agency’s progress on the issue.

“Let’s hope that EPA does the right thing,” Kilian said. “EPA is demonstrating more of a commitment to clean water than we seem to be seeing today out of the DEC or out of the governor’s office. And that’s positive.”