Vermont Recommits to the Clean Water Act

Yesterday, EPA sent Vermont’s clean water agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, a Clean Water Act “Corrective Action Plan,” outlining permitting and enforcement improvements and updates the state has made or needs to make to ensure that the state provides all the protections required by law to its citizens and the waters they have a right to use and enjoy. This marks a major milestone in CLF’s long-running efforts to secure clean water for all Vermonters.

The federal Clean Water Act is one of the most important and successful laws our nation ever enacted. Before its passage more than 40 years ago, massive volumes of raw sewage and industrial wastes flowed freely into our lakes and rivers. Polluters responsible for this mess faced little in the way of meaningful consequences. The patchwork of state permitting and enforcement programs Americans relied on to keep our waters safe and clean simply had too many holes in it.

The law’s passage reflected a national commitment to restoring and protecting all of our nation’s waters, ensuring that they are safe for drinking, fishing, swimming, and boating, with water quality that also supports healthy populations of fish and shellfish. It established a national goal of eliminating water pollution. As important as this law is, its effectiveness depends on its faithful execution by political appointees and career professional regulators at EPA and partner state clean water agencies like Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2008, CLF acted on its longstanding concerns that Vermont’s waters were suffering from excessive pollution in part because state officials were falling far short of fulfilling all of their Clean Water Act responsibilities. CLF, with tremendous assistance from its able pro-bono counsel from the Vermont Law School’s Environmental and Natural Resources Legal Clinic,  petitioned EPA to order significant improvements in Vermont’s water pollution control permitting and enforcement efforts. If Vermont officials failed to make needed improvements, CLF asked EPA to take over the lead in issuing permits and enforcing against polluters in Vermont.

After several years of investigation by EPA and negotiations with state officials, the Corrective Action Plan EPA issued represents a validation of CLF’s core concerns. It also represents a positive re-commitment to the Clean Water Act by the administration of Governor Peter Shumlin. Among the positive corrective actions Vermont has taken or will take to better control pollution per the EPA plan are:

  • The final issuance of the state’s first ever permit to control pollution discharges from “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations”—animal feedlot operations meeting certain regulatory criteria—in a manner that complies with the Clean Water Act.
  • Commitments to increase annual inspections of actual and suspected “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” to detect unlawful pollution discharges and ensure that CAFO dischargers apply for and comply with Clean Water Act permits.
  • Changes to state law allowing citizens to have a voice in the resolution of Clean Water Act enforcement proceedings.
  • A plan for limiting the amount of nutrients discharged by municipal wastewater treatment plants into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.
  • Enforcement against the Village of Waterbury sewage treatment plant that will significantly reduce one of the largest single phosphorous discharges into Lake Champlain through installation of state-of-the-art technology
  • Conforming the state’s policy relating to the use of polluter’s penalty payments to EPA’s requirement
  • Implementing a requirement of the Clean Water Act to prevent the degradation of existing high quality waters

The declining health of Lake Champlain and numerous other Vermont waterways underscores how far we. By implementing all of the Corrective Actions outlined above, Vermont is taking an important step in the right direction toward clean water solutions. Vermonters’ quality of life, economic vitality, and maintenance of our state’s green “brand” requires nothing less.

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