Local officials: CLF suit unfairly targets wastewater treatment

By CHAD L. WHITEHEAD

Editor’s note: This commentary was signed by Chad L. Whitehead, town manager, St. Johnsbury; James Sherrard, stormwater coordinator, Williston; Harry J. Shepard, public works director/town engineer, Stowe; William Fraser, city manager, Montpelier; Dominic Cloud, city manager, St. Albans City; Chip Sawyer, director of planning & development, St. Albans City; James Jutras, water quality superintendent, Essex Junction; and Jeffrey Wennberg, public works commissioner, Rutland City. Shelburne is included in CLF’s legal challenge and local officials Chris Robinson, Shelburne’s water quality superintendent, and Interim Town Manager Lee Krohn say they concur with this message. 

Most recent press reports of the efforts by the Conservation Law Foundation to overturn nine wastewater treatment plant permits failed to fully explore CLF’s claims. CLF’s attorney argued before the judge that the new permits would “allow for increases of actual discharges.”

Here is the truth: The nine Agency of Natural Resources permits challenged by CLF collectively lower the allowed phosphorus releases to the lake by 13,271 pounds per year, or 68 percent below current permit limits.

Furthermore, a core legal argument put forward by CLF states that the new permits are not consistent with the EPA-mandated limits under the new Total Maximum Daily Load plan. Unfortunately, this argument is categorically false as the new permits are identical to what was required in the EPA-approved TMDL.

EPA determined that of all the phosphorus flowing to the lake from Vermont sources, wastewater treatment plants contribute only 3 percent. The TMDL plan requires a 44 percent reduction in total phosphorus, so even if CLF is successful in its appeal, the benefit to the lake would be negligible.

CLF is trying to set treatment plant limits equal to the current phosphorus releases from these plants. If that is done, no additional connections would be allowed. Every wastewater system would be at its legal limit. If successful, CLF would penalize those wastewater facilities that are outperforming their permits.

Organizations and individuals who are genuinely concerned about water quality should be working collaboratively to ensure necessary reductions from agriculture and urban/rural stormwater are achieved. These two sources account for 66 percent of Vermont’s contribution. Likewise, we should be celebrating the work of our local wastewater treatment plant crews. Every one of these plants has reduced their phosphorous releases far below their current limits. They have done this not because it was required or inexpensive, but to better protect water quality.

The opportunity to significantly lower phosphorus limits exists because the operators of these plants and the towns that own them have worked very hard to squeeze every possible pound of phosphorus out of their discharges. And what message does it send if the reward for their efforts is a limit so stringent that violations are unavoidable and all growth is redirected to Vermont’s green fields?

We all need to be concerned about the lake and water quality in general. If real progress is to be made, we must be more like our wastewater treatment plant operators who seek every opportunity to make real improvements.

This commentary originally ran on VTDigger.org.

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