Last August, I wrote a diary entitled “How green is Vermont, really?” In it, I argued that Vermont’s reputation as a stalwart protector of its environment was vastly overblown — that our actual track record is a decidedly mixed bag.
My central point was that our two biggest environmental advantages have nothing to do with our earthly stewardship; it’s a simple matter of low population and lack of exploitable resources. As examples of poor stewardship, I pointed to our clean-water record (recurring toxic algae blooms on Lake Champlain, inadequate treatment of storm and sewer water, and a complete lack of effective oversight of our smaller bodies of water), the amount of particulate matter we pump into the air via residential woodstoves, decades of complete non-regulation of junkyards (only corrected four years ago), and our addiction to driving, particularly in low-mileage trucks, SUVs and all-wheel drive vehicles.
Well, a couple of recent items in the news have confirmed — indeed, amplified — my views. Our traditional Vermont ways are often harmful to the environment, and only our small population saves us from being a blight upon the earth. And even with our current population, we are inexorably degrading our environment.
The first item is from the January 22 issue of Seven Days. In an article on potential regulation of woodstoves, Ken Picard reported that Vermont has “the highest rate of adult asthma in the country – 11.1 percent of the population suffers from it.” And, as I noted last August, the vast majority of small particulate emissions come from woodburning. In short, our air quality would improve overnight if we got rid of every woodstove and outdoor wood boiler in the state and replaced them with an equivalent number of biomass plants with up-to-date emission controls.
It’s doubtful that Vermont would tackle this festering problem on its own. Instead, the EPA is proposing tough new standards for woodstoves and other wood-fired heaters. Even if those rules go through, it’ll take decades for our current stock to be replaced by products that don’t pollute the air.
The second item was, of course, Wednesday’s come-to-Jesus meeting between lawmakers and the US EPA, in which we were lectured on our abuse of Lake Champlain and warned that we will have to make serious (and costly) changes to avoid federal sanctions and mandates.
This is a development you’d expect in Texas or West Virginia. But solidly green, crunchy-granola Vermont as an environmental outlaw? We ought to be ashamed.
And, frankly, the state and our advocacy groups ought to make this our number-one environmental priority. But we probably won’t, because it’ll be difficult and expensive. And it will impinge on a core Vermont tradition: small-scale agriculture. The big sources are pretty much under control.
As Environmental Commissioner David Mears noted, “Most of the pollution that’s going into the lake comes from the landscape.” More specifics from the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck (Gannett paywall warning):
Cropland accounts for the single largest share at 35 percent with pastures adding another 4 percent. Development accounts for 14 percent, as do forests. Erosion of unpaved roads brings in 5.6 percent.
… As a result, efforts to reduce phosphorus will likely include requirements for road and bridge construction and regulations on farms, requiring small farms to be certified as medium and large farms are and ensure that they follow standard manure management and other practices.
The shoreland protection bill currently making its way through the Legislature will also play a part. But this isn’t going to be easy, especially when the largest problem, by far, is agriculture. The festival of circular finger-pointing has already begun, and it’ll get a whole lot worse.
And I haven’t even mentioned how we’ll raise the money to pay for all of this.
Champlain pollution, like our belching chimneys and high asthma rates, is mostly a product of our current Vermont lifestyle, not large industries or overdevelopment. Yes, parking lots and rooftops play a part. But we have relatively few of both. It’s what we’ve been doing and are doing now that’s turned Lake Champlain into a petri dish for toxic algae blooms.
In order to become the Good Stewards we like to think we are, we cannot be satisfied with trying to preserve our current status. We have to make significant changes in how we live and how we use our landscape. Some of our Vermont traditions will have to go — or will have to change substantially. Like, for instance, our addiction to low-mileage trucks and FWDs and the quantity of miles we drive: the solution to that problem is a switch to electric-powered vehicles and the widespread construction of renewable energy sources. Yes, even wind turbines.
Last August, I wrote this about our environmental movement:
The unspoken guiding principle seems to be this: If it’s old, traditional, familiar, or small, it’s good (or at least acceptable). If it’s new, shiny, different, or (gasp!) corporate, it’s bad and we need to resist it.
And there’s where our self-satisfaction becomes counterproductive. Not everything old, traditional, familiar or small is good; not everything new, shiny, different, or even corporate is bad.
I believe that more than ever. The much-protested new and shiny things, like ridgeline turbines, solar farms, biomass plants, and even that natural gas pipeline, are less of a threat to Vermont’s environment than simply continuing to do what we’ve been doing. And on our own, we have clearly lacked the political will to make meaningful changes. That’s why our water and air problems are being tackled, not by good-heated Vermonters, but by bureaucratic regulators from the federal government.
Environmentally speaking, Vermont needs to get its shit together. It needs to stop being so smug and self-satisfied. And it needs to stop reflexively defending the familiar and rejecting the new.