Legislature expected to spar over environmental bills
MONTPELIER — Environmental bills will likely be ground zero for fights between the Scott administration and lawmakers this legislative session.
In the run up to the Jan. 3 opening day, there were flare-ups between environmental advocates, lawmakers and Agency of Natural Resources officials over Act 250 reform legislation, funding for clean up of phosphorus from Lake Champlain and a proposed carbon tax.
Gov. Phil Scott has already taken heat from environmentalists for comments about how climate change could be good for the state’s economy, for foot-dragging on efforts to prevent toxic algae blooms, and for eliminating references to climate change in a report on Act 250, the state’s land use law. In addition, members of the governor’s cabinet have been accused of giving developers a pass on new stormwater rules.
Leading lawmakers in the House and Senate environmental committees meanwhile have forged ahead with proposed changes to state statutes that would identify a funding source for lake cleanup, require better enforcement of agricultural water quality regulations, ramp up regulations on toxic chemicals, and rehash a controversial proposal to tax carbon dioxide emissions.
Lawmakers are also seeking to bolster safety requirements for dams, loosen vehicle inspection requirements and require cyclists to register vehicles.
BIKE REGISTRATION, DAM INSPECTION BILLS
Cyclists would be required to register bicycles with the state, under a bill proposed by Sen. Carolyn Whitney Branagan, R-Franklin. The legislation would require bicyclists to pay $30 to register and license plates would be required for all bikes. Cyclists would need to carry proof of registration, which could be revoked if a cyclist drinks habitually or if the bike is in bad condition.
Under H. 554, dam owners would be required to register the structures with the state. The bill would also require the state to conduct safety inspections of Vermont dams. The DEC would maintain a list of dams and write new safety rules.
A couple of other bills (S. 193 and S. 170) and would curtail the state’s vehicle-inspection laws — one would exempt vehicles fewer than two years old from inspection requirements, another would exempt vehicles from further inspection requirements if that vehicle has failed inspections once but undergone certain repairs.
A related legislative proposal, S. 227, would simply direct the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources to study the state’s vehicle inspection program, and to suggest improvements.
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, wants to establish noise limits for new developments. S. 210 directs the Agency of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Board to come up with noise limits for developments that either pollute the air or that require a permit under the state’s land-use law, Act 250.
Lawmakers last year directed the Public Utility Commission to write noise limits for Vermont’s wind turbines, and the PUC fulfilled that charge, but a similar set of rules for all other forms of land use doesn’t yet exist.
Another priority this year is a tax on carbon-dioxide pollution. Legislators in recent years have proposed various schemes to put such a tax in place, and this year several lawmakers are backing a carbon-pollution tax that would subsidize electricity bills.
Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, has introduced S. 284, which supporters say would reduce Vermont electricity rates to the lowest in New England. The tax is intended to diminish Vermonters’ impact on global warming by discouraging the use of fossil fuels.
Scott recently described global warming as a potential “economic boom” for Vermonters, and the millionaire racecar driver says he opposes a tax on fossil fuels out of concern for poor, rural Vermonters. He has adamantly opposed carbon-pricing efforts since before he was elected governor.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson also opposes the carbon tax because she says it will hurt commuters who live in the poorer, more rural parts of the state.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, has proposed legislation, S. 220, that would make the Department of Environmental Conservation responsible for enforcing farm compliance with environmental rules. Currently the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets promotes and regulates farming.
Vermont farms are the single greatest contributor to water pollution that has nourished toxic, yearly bacterial blooms in Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi, Lake Memphremagog and other Vermont public waters.
Campion believes the agency’s dual role as both promoter and regulator has undermined compliance efforts. He is advocating for a separation of those two functions. Scott administration officials want to keep the current arrangement as is.
Another set of bills (S.260 and H.564) would establish long-term funding for the roughly $1.2 billion Vermonters must pay over the next 20 years to comply with state and federal clean water laws. Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, introduced a bill in the Senate that charges a per parcel fee for cleanup. There is now a companion bill in the House. Over time, the fees would target properties, such as large parking lots, that generate the most phosphorous pollution.
Julie Moore, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, declined to fulfill a legislative mandate requiring the administration to submit a recommendation for long-term funding sources for lake cleanup. Instead, Moore, the tax commissioner, and the secretary of agriculture left it to lawmakers to come up with their own funding solution.
Lawmakers have responded with a number of bills that address funding and the root causes of pollution. Campion has, for example, proposed S. 188, which would supplement the state’s clean-water funds with fees assessed on cow feed and chemical fertilizers.
Yet another bill from Campion called S. 218 would force farmers to disclose pollution control plans to the public.
The documents, known as nutrient management plans, show how farmers will comply with water-quality rules requiring them to keep agricultural pollution on their own land. They are public documents under Vermont law, although the Agency of Agriculture multiple times in 2017 asked media organizations to pay thousands of dollars to view the records. Agency of Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts last year sought legislation to make the documents secret.
Tebbetts didn’t succeed, and Campion’s bill this year could forestall further attempts to keep the records from the public.
Campion has pursued several water-quality initiatives after 500 wells in his district were discovered to be contaminated with highly toxic chemicals from a Teflon fabric coating plant in Bennington County.
Better regulation and enforcement of toxic chemicals appears to be a priority for legislators this year. One of the bills in the queue is a holdover from last year, S.10. The legislation would have required new wells to be tested for certain contaminants, and would have established a working group charged with setting up a state chemical reporting system.
Campion introduced it in the wake of the Chemfab scandal that poisoned hundreds of wells in his district in Bennington County.
The legislation was ultimately shelved last year after industry groups opposed it, but Campion said at the time that it would be among the highest priorities for lawmakers this year.
Campion has also proposed S.197, legislation that seeks to force polluters to pay for future medical monitoring for Vermonters who have high levels of toxins in their bloodstreams. The bill would also strengthen liability laws to hold polluters accountable for the harmful substances they release.
Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, has introduced another bill, H. 560, that would require manufacturers of hazardous household products to contribute to a fund meant to pay for disposal of household hazardous waste.
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