Clean water bill would give citizens role in enforcement

NEW HAVEN — Dairy farms came into the spotlight at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the New Haven Congregational Church when local lawmakers discussed a clean water bill that would give citizens the right to challenge Vermonters who they think aren’t complying with the law.
One farmer at the breakfast expressed concerns that putting this right to challenge in the clean water law could create friction between dairies dealing with manure management and non-farmers who think the dairies aren’t doing enough to keep phosphorus out of Vermont’s waterways.
S.260 is a bill that would establish a Vermont Clean Water Authority to coordinate, manage, plan and “ensure accountability” of the state’s efforts to clean impaired waters up to state standards for the long-term. The bill would also create a “clean water assessment” on all parcels in the state, with revenues used to fund water quality improvement projects in Vermont.
S.260 includes a “citizen right of action” provision. In other words, if someone sees a law they believe isn’t being enforced, the person can file a notice with the alleged violator and with the regulating agency. That would create a 90-day window during which the agency visits the property to determine if a law has in fact been broken.
Chanin Hill of Bristol’s Four Hills Farm voiced concern about the right-of-action aspect of the law.
“It pits a neighbor against a neighbor, and it pits citizens against our government if they don’t like the result when they report something wrong,” Hill said. “And there’s no protection for somebody if they’re reported for a violation and found by the governing agency not to be in violation.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, argued that such a provision is already part of federal environmental law and has been used in 20 other states.
He believes S.260 is saying, “Let’s live by the laws we pass.”
If the inspecting agency confirms a violation, the offender is asked to correct it, according to Bray.
“(The agency’s) last resort is a fine,” he said.
If there’s no violation, the agency will put that in writing, according to Bray, and the plaintiff is not allowed to bring a lawsuit.
“The point is, it provides a formal, legal mechanism to say, ‘We think there might be a problem here, we want the agency to be aware of it, and we want them to have a formal obligation to go out and evaluate.’”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He said farmers are already being placed under increasing scrutiny, citing in part manure management standards related to Lake Champlain cleanup.
“I think this is an example where things have gotten out of kilter a little bit,” Smith said of the prospect of a “citizen right of action” provision.
Smith recalled a case around three years ago when he said inspectors from “four or five” different state agencies descended upon the Four Hills Farm to check out a manure pit being installed off Plank Road in Bristol.
“I would think (the inspectors’) time would be better spent if they were out working with the farms,” Smith said. “When you have a complaint today, they have 48 hours to investigate that complaint. I think that is being covered. A citizen’s right to action is just presenting another hurdle.”
Gov. Phil Scott on March 20 listed S.260 as a “likely veto,” according to Bray. The bill passed the Senate by a 29-0 vote. Bray said he wrote the administration three times asking it to outline its specific concerns about S.260.
“I never got a response, other than I could meet individually (with Scott staffers),” Bray said.
Bray replied the best solution would be “a document that responds to the entire Senate; it can’t be a conversation on the side.”
The financial plight of dairy farmers has been a recurring topic at this year’s legislative breakfast series. Smith explained farmers are not only contending with three straight years of low milk prices, they are having to invest in capital improvements to their farms to prevent phosphorous runoff into Lake Champlain. A worldwide glut of milk and the prospect of an international trade/tariff war is making matters even worse, Smith noted.
He reiterated that since Vermont produces 60 percent of the region’s milk, the state can’t realistically impose a surcharge to help financially strapped farmers.
“We’re really in a tough spot,” Smith said.
Four Hills Farms is one of the largest dairy farms in the state. The farm receives all-too frequent calls from smaller dairy operations seeking to sell their herds, according to Chanin Hill.
“It’s not the big farm, it’s the 50-cow dairy that is now in a position where they haven’t had the support they needed, the milk price isn’t there, and those are the guys who are losing,” Hill said. “It upsets me. They are our friends. They are part of our community … The little guy is struggling out there, and needs more help.”
Bray said 20 years ago, families were spending 4 percent of their household income on health care and around 18 percent on food. Those two percentages today have essentially flipped, according to Bray. This speaks to the fact that farmers are struggling and health care costs are getting out of hand, Bray said.
“We’ve made food much cheaper,” Bray said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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