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Bob Stannard: Vermont needs a moratorium on spraying toxic chemicals in our lakes

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This commentary is by Bob Stannard of Manchester, an author, musician and former state legislator and lobbyist.

H.31 is a bill that has been introduced by Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester. The bill calls for a moratorium on the issuance of permits to spray our lakes with toxic chemicals to kill a plant known as Eurasian milfoil.

Why is a moratorium needed? After our lakes have been sprayed for almost two decades, the public is finally waking up to the fact that poisoning our way out of perceived problems is not the solution and that the process that allows the state Department of Environmental Conservation to do so is flawed.

In an article Jan. 20 in the Rutland Herald, the agency was quick to respond by saying that this bill is not needed, because “they’ve begun a rulemaking process to address issues people have raised.” By initiating this rulemaking process, they are acknowledging that the permitting process is flawed, thus making the case for H.31.

Any permits issued today would be under a process that the agency now admits is flawed. The moratorium would ensure that the process would be fixed before any more permits were issued.

The agency offered the rule-making process only after the overwhelming outcry over an application to spray Lake Bomoseen; Vermont’s largest lake, with a toxic chemical known as ProcellaCOR made by a company known as SePro.

The agency has hastily created a group of “stakeholders” to provide input on the new rules. One of the stakeholders is Solitude. Solitude is a lake management company and a vendor of SePro chemicals. Having this company influencing the rules is the equivalent of having the fox guard the henhouse.

The agency has had 20 years to draft rules and suggest legislative changes, but has neglected to do so. This rulemaking process is happening only because the people are angry and speaking out.

The way the process works is as follows. It takes only one person to file an application to spray any lake within Vermont’s borders. Upon filing, the Department of Environmental Conservation begins to review the application for completeness. If the department deems it to be complete, it can open up a 30-day window for public comments. Unless you are tracking this process, odds are you’ll never know about this window. The department may, or may not, hold a public hearing. The applicant does not need to demonstrate that its actions might harm fish or the environment. The applicant needs only to show that there’s milfoil in a lake.

The Department of Environmental Conservation “voluntarily” accepts input from other state agencies, such as the Agriculture Department, the Health Department and the Fish & Wildlife Department. Even if all other agencies oppose the issuance of a permit, the Department of Environmental Conservation permit specialist (just one person) can overrule any objections.

For example, the Fish & Wildlife Department has weighed in on the five criteria that applications to the Department of Environmental Conservation must meet. It has pointed out that the application does not meet any of the five criteria. That should be enough for a permit to be denied, but the Department of Environmental Conservation can simply say, “We disagree,” and issue a permit.

One person starts this process. One person decides whether a permit is granted. That is simply unfair.

In the case of Lake Bomoseen, a board consisting of about a dozen people initiated the process. They did so without any input from their members and/or the community. The co-applicant is the Lake Bomoseen Preservation Trust. This is a group of approximately seven people and does not bother to have members. They’re just a group of well-heeled people who want to impose their will onto others.

Initially, the town of Hubbardton was the co-applicant, until town officials learned that they were deceived and demanded that their name be removed from the application. Four selectboards from surrounding communities have unanimously voted against this application. Over 3,500 people have signed petitions opposing this application. The Department of Environmental Conservation need not listen to any of them. In the end, the permit specialist can issue the permit over any and all objections.

Vermont’s lakes are owned by the people, but it’s these lake associations that have the ear of the state — not the people, not the Fish & Wildlife Department. The way the process works today is that one person, or a small group of people, can dictate to all Vermonters that they will spray a lake whether we like it or not.

This harkens back to the 1700s when a handful of British elites tried to impose their will onto the Colonies. The people fought back and they won.

There is no guarantee that the people will win this fight to keep toxic chemicals out of Lake Bomoseen, because the process does not work in their favor. The proposed rulemaking will serve to solidify power and control with the Department of Environmental Conservation.

What should happen is that all agencies should participate in the decision to issue a permit and if one agency says “ni” to a permit, then a permit should not be issued. The Department of Environmental Conservation should not just pay lip service to the advice of other agencies and the people. It should have to abide by that advice, but in doing so it would be giving up control of the process.

In my decades of experience in Vermont politics, I have never seen any agency willing to give up control or authority over anything. Instead, they propose rules to make us think that everything will be just fine.

This attempt at appeasing the public will not cut it. What’s needed is H.31. We need a moratorium on this failed process so that all Vermonters can be heard and real changes be made. Vermonters should not tolerate a process that allows the few to impose their will on the majority.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Bob Stannard: Vermont needs a moratorium on spraying toxic chemicals in our lakes .

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