Growing Our Food Without Poisoning the Water: VT Issues Important New Draft Permit

Anthony Iarrapino

A manure spreader overloads a St. Albans farm field with manure resulting in a direct discharge to Lake Champlain in 2007.

CLF is committed to protecting clean water AND to supporting a healthy farming economy in Vermont and throughout New England (read more about our food and farm work here). At CLF we know we Vermonters can grow our food without poisoning our water.  We have no choice if we are going to achieve a thriving New England for generations to come.

That’s why CLF has worked so hard to get Vermont officials to admit that intensive dairy operations and other types of industrial farming that confine large numbers of animals in small spaces needed to obtain Clean Water Act permits for discharges of manure and other pollution into waters of the state. Vermont is one of the last states, and in fact may be the last state to issue a permit to minimize and eventually eliminate these discharges from “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) under the Clean Water Act.

In 2008, CLF issued a detailed report titled Failing our Waters, Failing our Farms: Vermont Regulators Turn A Blind Eye to Threat of Illegal Pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” The report relied on years of agency inspection documents showing numerous cases of manure and other discharges that clearly violated the Clean Water Act. CLF’s report called for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state regulators who run the federal Clean Water Act program in Vermont, to begin requiring polluting operations to obtain Clean Water Act permits.

Sadly, CLF’s call to action went unheeded, and cases of unchecked CAFO pollution continued, resulting in contamination of Lake Champlain and other lakes, rivers, and streams throughout Vermont. Particularly, agricultural discharges can result in harmful bacteria outbreaks and in the explosive growth of harmful blue-green algae that can make water unsafe for swimming, fishing, boating, and drinking.

When state officials failed to act, CLF, with pro bono representation from Vermont Law School’s Environment and Natural Resources Clinic, petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over Clean Water Act permitting because it was clear that Vermont officials lacked the political will to adequately deal with a major group of polluters in a manner consistent with the nation’s landmark clean water law. EPA officials took CLF’s allegations seriously. Though Vermont officials initially resisted acceptance of this core water protection obligation, the last couple years have seen breakthroughs in the negotiation over the petition which in part resulted in the issuance of today’s long-awaited draft permit as well as forthcoming commitments by the state and EPA to dedicate more resources to CAFO inspection and enforcement.

CLF applauds Governor Shumlin, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz, and Department of Environmental Conservation Commission David Mears for showing the leadership to have Vermont at last embrace this important Clean Water Act obligation. Though the issuance of a draft permit is merely a small step in the right direction–CLF hopes it is a clear signal that Vermont may be ready to stop backpedaling when it comes to protecting lakes, rivers, and streams from this serious source of pollution.

CLF looks forward to examining this draft carefully and to filing comments to ensure that the permit contains all of the protections the law requires. I urge all who care about water that is safe for swimming, fishing, boating, and drinking and that supports fish and other wildlife, to examine the Draft Permit (available from the Agency’s web site here) and to send comments supporting its final adoption. There is no doubt that the powerful interests of Big Agriculture will continue to fight this positive step forward, even though many other farmers are welcoming the opportunity to be better stewards of our shared water resources.

 

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