Vermont Governor Rejects Proposed Water Cleanup

By ISABEL EMSFELD

MONTPELIER— On March 22, the Vermont State Senate unanimously passed the bill S.260, which would dedicate a committee, as well as other resources, to cleaning up water pollution.

Shortly after the bill was passed, Governor Phil Scott declared his opposition to it, stating, “I’m not familiar exactly with the details of the bill, but if it includes a tax or fee I would be opposed.” However, the bill does not necessarily implement taxes or fees for Vermont residents. Instead, it creates a committee that will look for and study long-term funding initiatives to help reduce water pollution levels.

The estimation for how much it would cost to bring Vermont public waters to the acceptable state and federal clean water level is $25 million, according to VTDigger. In order to achieve this kind of funding, the designated committee would have to either raise revenue, or reduce spending elsewhere within the state’s budget. One main area the bill targets is farming. Part of the money would be used for subsidizing farmers to invest in new technology that reduces their water pollution emissions, as well as fees for farmers that fail to reduce pollution.

The potential for the raise in revenues is the major reason for dissent from Scott. In his letter to the Vermont General Assembly, in which the bill is among 13 that Gov. Scott has deemed “problematic” because of “new or higher taxes or fees,” which he cannot support. Scott expresses that he wishes to find alternative ways for these proposals to pass, without jeopardizing his priority of providing “Vermonters with a break.”

Additionally, the bill allows for Vermont residents to sue state legislators if they feel they are not upholding their jobs. Gov. Scott considers this to “violate of the separation of powers”, as he wrote in his letter to the General Assembly. According to VTDigger, Scott’s administrators believe that citizens ability to sue legislators “will strain state resources and allow everyday citizens to dictate priorities for state agencies.”

Scott admits that something must be done, however, to tackle water pollution, and that long-term funding for this project is needed.

According to the Vermont General Assembly, “[W]ithin Vermont there are 7,100 miles of rivers and streams and 812 lakes and ponds of at least five acres in size.”

By the current assessment of State, “water or water segments indicates that there are: 101 waters or water segments that do not meet the State’s water quality standards for at least one criterion and require a plan for cleanup. 114 waters or water segments that do not meet State water quality standards and that do have a current cleanup plan, but which may not be meeting water quality standards…114 waters or water segments that are stressed, meaning that there are one or more factors or influences that prohibit the water from maintaining a higher quality; and at least 56 waters that are altered due to aquatic nuisance species, meaning that one or more of the designated uses of the water are prohibited due to the presence of aquatic nuisance species.”

The dichotomy between Gov. Scott’s pledge not to raise taxes or fees and the need for control of water pollution— with a need for additional revenue— is stalling the water pollution control that Vermont needs, despite warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency and the national government. Vermont was ordered to enforce agricultural rules and legislation meant to reduce water pollution from farms by 60 percent. By the end of 2017, Vermont was supposed to have identified funding, as well as a plan, for this legislation to be implemented, but the state has yet to do so.

Lynne Hamjian, the deputy director of the Ecosystem Protection Office in the EPA’s New England branch, has told legislators that they would be well advised to implement new farming practices that stem phosphorus pollution. Otherwise, the state could be ordered to take more costly measures.

Vermont is being warned that if the state does not act immediately, the costs are only going to increase. Hamjian emphasizes that if the state does not enforce these regulations now, Vermont could be required to upgrade to wastewater treatment plants—which would cost much more than what the bill S.260 proposes. According to VTDigger, it could instead end up costing Vermonters an additional 25 million to 30 million dollars each year for the next two decades.

Vermont’s water is in immediate and urgent danger with the continuation of water pollution and emissions that poison the pristine aquatic communities and wildlife.

The fight is not over whether this is an issue; it’s over who should pay. Is it the taxpaying citizen of Vermont’s duty? Should it come out of the government’s budget, reducing other government-funded programs? Is it the responsibility of the farmers that are the leading source of water pollution?

With this split, especially between the Governor and the Senate’s views on this bill, it is hard to tell what will happen. The destiny of bill S.260 will continue in the hands of the House, but overall, it must win Governor Scott’s signature to pass.

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Vermont Governor Rejects Proposed Water Cleanup