Opinion: ANR failing in its duty to oversee Cabot Creamery

On Aug. 31, Deborah Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, published an essay in this newspaper titled “A day to care for creation.” In it, she waxed eloquent about Vermont’s beauty, how “it feeds my spirit, and I often see how Vermonters’ personal ties to our lakes, mountains, fields and forests lead them to fight to protect the land and water.” She cited the Dalai Lama “ [It is our] responsibility to undo the serious environmental degradation that is the result of incorrect human behavior … Humanity must take the initiative to repair and protect the world.” She remarked on “our obligation to take care of the planet” and ended her essay by remarking that “ with each of us doing ‘something’ we can change the world.”
Yet in practice, Secretary Markowitz seems to be protecting one of Vermont’s major polluters — Cabot Creamery, owned by the Massachusetts-based Agri-Mark. The creamery’s proposed indirect discharge permit came under intense scrutiny at a public hearing the same day the secretary’s essay appeared. A reporter for VT Digger attended the hearing, and on Sept. 2 produced a story headlined “Cabot Plant Likely to Continue Spreading Wastewater on Nearby Fields.” It quoted ANR’s Bryan Harrington, who chaired the hearing, as saying that “Cabot Creamery is likely to see its permit renewed, as it has been every five years since 1990. We feel that Cabot is meeting groundwater and surface water standards to justify us issuing a renewal of their indirect discharge permit.”
This snap judgment is shocking in light of strong evidence presented at the hearing that ANR does not adequately monitor the creamery’s waste stream and instead leaves most of the monitoring up to Cabot. As one of many who expressed concerns, I revealed that EPA’s Stephen Perkins, in a letter to me dated Aug. 14, 2014, had suggested to ANR that it do an unannounced inspection and sampling of Cabot’s waste stream, which “would help establish a record of current performance before the next permit review.” That was a year ago, and nothing happened. I wrote Secretary Markowitz two months ago asking for unannounced testing but so far her office has not confirmed that the testing has occurred.
The last (and only) time ANR’s Department of Environmental Conservation did unannounced testing was in late 2011-2012, which produced a seven-page analysis of some 224 separate chemicals — over twice the amount previously claimed by Agri-Mark. Dr. Bernard Greenberg, a physical chemist who had criticized ANR’s 2009 permit, looked over the report and stated that the dissolved phosphorus, total phosphorus, total solids and suspended solids, ammonia and total kjeldah nitrogen (TKN) in the analysis were “scandalously high.” Also turning up, along with the carcinogens toluene, benzene and barium, was the highly corrosive element hexavalent chromium, which had caused multiple forms of cancer in the citizens of Hinkley, Calif., as revealed by Erin Brokovich.
These and many other disturbing facts came out at the hearing — chief among them that the trucks spraying the waste have violated limitations on where and how much they can spray, that only three fields out of 538 are monitored, and that the soil in the 33 towns where the wastewater is sprayed has never been tested. Sadly, when the Guidelines on Land Application of Wastewater were first issued in 1990 by Timothy Burke, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Jonathan Lash, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, the authors were concerned about high levels of phosphorous and nitrates in Cabot’s wastewater and warned that “improper disposal can lead to pollution of groundwater and drinking water … Overloading of fields … can result in runoff to surface water which can lead to oxygen depletion and fish kill. Furthermore, the nutrient content of dairy processing wastes can accelerate eutrophication in many surface waters.”
Eutrophication creates blue-green algae, which is now plaguing our lakes and streams due to runoff. It’s time that industrial run-off, and that includes Agri-Mark’s dairy wastewater, come under the kind of scrutiny that has previously been directed at farmers and property owners.
If the current permit is rubber stamped as has customarily happened over the past 25 years, it will be left to the secretary to collect and analyze water samples from the receiving streams (including the Winooski and Lamoille rivers, which feed into Lake Champlain). It will be up to the secretary to request biological monitoring, inspect manure pits at disposal sites, sample discharges of waste into the groundwater, and inspect pollution management at the facility. So far, Secretary Markowitz has not generated the kind of oversight Vermonters need to feel confident that Cabot and the Agency of Natural Resources are protecting our health and environment. It’s time for the Agency of Natural Resources to stop regarding Cabot Creamery as a sacred cow and to instead fulfill its responsibility to the public with the kind of stricter monitoring requested at the public hearing.
Charlotte Dennett
Editor’s note: Charlotte Dennett is a Vermont attorney and investigative journalist. She has represented two Cabot residents in hearings before the District 5 Environmental Commission and the Agency of Natural Resources, and was a candidate for the Vermont Progressive Party for Vermont attorney general in 2008 and 2010. 

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