EPA reverses course on Lake Champlain pollution plan

Says effort isn’t stringent enough

By John Curran
Associated Press / January 25, 2011

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MONTPELIER — Nearly nine years after approving it, the US Environmental Protection Agency says Vermont’s plan to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain is flawed and does not meet federal requirements.

In a decision announced yesterday, the EPA reversed its approval of a 2002 plan it now says did not give adequate assurance that phosphorus reductions from polluted runoff would be achieved and did not provide an adequate margin to account for uncertainty in the analysis.

At issue is a document setting the “total maximum daily load’’ for phosphorus, a plant nutrient found in many pollutants that contributes to weed growth and algae blooms in Lake Champlain.

The original document — a joint effort drawn up by New York state, Vermont, and the province of Quebec — was aimed at establishing phosphorus absorption limits for the 120-mile-long lake, which provides drinking water for about 250,000 people.

The Conservation Law Foundation had sued EPA in 2008, saying the phosphorus limits were not stringent enough and did not take into account the effects of climate change.

Last April, EPA reached an agreement with the conservation group under which it would get six months to reconsider the pollution limits in exchange for which the foundation would drop its suit, irrespective of what EPA ultimately decided about their suitability. Yesterday, EPA announced its reversal.

“It’s very big news,’’ said Christopher Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont advocacy center in Montpelier. He said the foundation “has been pressing for an accurate pollution budget for the lake since even before 2002.’’

“This document serves as a basis for driving every single permitting and pollution reduction decision that’s made that could affect the lake,’’ Kilian said.

Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA, said federal regulators will work with the state of Vermont to come up with a new total maximum daily load for the areas of Lake Champlain that were part of the 2002 plan.

“Our action today doesn’t mean that Vermont’s earlier efforts haven’t had value,’’ Spalding said in a statement. “But looking forward, clearly more needs to be done to address the challenges presented by ongoing pollution. This action also should not affect ongoing lake restoration projects such as those supported by Vermont’s Clean and Clear initiative and the Lake Champlain Basin Program.’’

David Mears, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the decision gives the state an opportunity to reinforce the work it has already engaged in. But he said there are fiscal concerns, too.

“It’s fair to say the state has some legitimate concerns and interests in making sure the approach we take takes into account some factors: Our municipalities are already pretty cash-strapped, and some of the changes in technology necessary to address phosphorus discharges are expensive.

“That’s also true for impacts on our farms or small businesses that already have infrastructure that contributes to runoff,’’ Mears said. “It’s no inexpensive thing to deal with these issues.’’

Kilian said he hopes Governor Peter Shumlin’s administration will embrace the chance to update Lake Champlain’s pollution budget with realistic forecasts.