Vermont isn’t really very “green” at all.

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.  

7 thoughts on “Vermont isn’t really very “green” at all.

  1. You are exactly right, JV.

    This smug illusion is costing us the proactive fire necessary to get the real work done.

    So we’re proud of our Green Mountain state, are we?  Then why do we still chafe and whine over EPA regulations and clean transportation investments?

    Supposedly, we are attracting typically older, richer people to live here; but instead of harnessing some of the new capital to address our very real environmental weaknesses while at the same time creating jobs, our fearless leader chooses to pursue regressive taxation paths and “economic development” policy that hamstrings regulation and delays the creation of a truly green economy.  

  2. 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.

    Know why the EPA’s doing that?

    “Plaintiffs New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (collectively, the “States”) bring this action to compel Gina McCarthy, as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), and the EPA to comply with the nondiscretionary duty under the Clean Air Act (“Act”) to review and revise as necessary the New Source Performance Standards (“NSPS”) for particulate matter pollution from new residential wood heaters. The States seek an injunction requiring EPA to promptly propose and take final agency action on the NSPS by dates certain.”

  3. It’s no wonder the state is not making progress. Whether it’s sediment coming off mountains or approving dumping more (and more toxic) chemicals into drinking water or turning a blind eye for the sake of the sacred cow of agriculture or reducing pollutants permitted through NPDES permits, state politicians and regulators have had no appetite for protecting our waters. I offer three examples:

    1. Photos of sedimentation going into streams on First Wind’s Sheffield Wind site in 2011. “There are some deficiencies in that area, Mears said. “But none appeared to have resulted in any harm to the waters of the state.” You can judge for yourself:

    2. In 2009 I gave this testimony to the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee about the use of chloramine in drinking water (used by the Champlain Water District) that, in addition to adding the nitrogenous compound ammonium sulfate to the water also increases the use of zinc orthophosphate and other chemicals such as sodium hydroxide:

    “In 2002, two professors of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University in Canada evaluated chloramine’s toxicity for Environment Canada. They found that “the use of chloramine is an unacceptable tradeoff in B.C., where sensitive and biologically productive waterways abound.””

    3. Ten years ago I gave testimony to the House Agriculture Committee about a case involving pesticides going into a stream that flows into Lake Champlain, and also cows housed in the middle of a stream, where public records showed the situation had been ongoing for at least four years.

    “Also in January 2002, the Animal Health Specialist followed up on an Animal Welfare Complaint from a neighbor – not the Tricketts – regarding poor conditions animals are being kept in at the Ochs farm. “I reminded Peter Ochs of my visit during May 1998 and told him that an effort must be made to provide animals an adequate way to get to the feeder when muddy conditions exist. We talked about what would be acceptable to me. I told him mud to the bellies is unacceptable. He asked if mud to the knees would be O.K.?” The memo contains an “Investigators Note” at the bottom: “This complaint was referred to the Plant Industry Section, as the animals were being fed, housed and watered in the middle of a stream. The Plant Industry Section was to follow up on this matter.””

    And yes, I could go on. About IBM’s discharge permit that allows huge quantities of heavy metals to be discharged to the Winooski River (ANR’s response was they aren’t discharging that much so it doesn’t matter that the permit allows them a whole lot more), about what it took to get Omya to stop dumping its chemically-contaminated waste into open pits that leach into groundwater….

    You want to clean up Lake Champlain. Tell DEC and Ag to stop viewing their “customer” as the regulated community whose job is to issue permits to pollute, and stop issuing permits that allow more and more pollutants into the water, and enforce the laws and ask for new laws if you need them, such as making logging AMPs mandatory instead of voluntary.

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