Manure runoff video appalls residents; agency defends policies
PANTON — As manure runoff from a Panton dairy farm mixed with snowmelt and found its way into Lake Champlain this past March, a wrinkled brown crust formed on top of the water.
For a moment during Panton resident Eben Markowski’s video footage of it, the crust looked like a moonscape or a desert.
The illusion was broken when Markowski dipped a plastic cup into the water and held it in front of his camera. A brown-gray sludge clung to side of the cup. When he poured it back, it hit the water with a chunky blurping sound.
In subsequent video, which showed foamy brown water rushing past, Markowski narrated what he saw.
“March 15, 2019, here at Button Bay,” he said. “A tributary coming in from the fields, and we are now at Lake Champlain. Those are the Button Bay Islands.”
Four months later, on Monday night, this imagery was part of what officials from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture faced off against when they took their seats in Panton Town Hall.
The runoff shown in the video was the result of a winter-spreading-ban exemption those officials had granted to Claudia and Joe Allen, who operate a medium-size dairy on Jersey Street in Panton. The Agency had concluded that it would be better to allow the Allens to spread manure on their snow-covered fields, rather than let their manure pit overflow, and gave them verbal permission to spread five days’ worth of manure — about 105,000 gallons, according to public documents obtained from the Agency of Agriculture.
The Allens ended up spreading roughly 540,000 gallons, according to those documents, allegedly five times the amount they had been granted permission for.
After that spreading was complete temperatures climbed into the 50s and 60s, leading to snowmelt and the documented runoff.
Monday night’s meeting, which drew more than 70 people, had been billed as a chance for the Agency of Agriculture and the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to provide information about manure-spreading regulations and enforcement policies.
The winter spreading ban lasts from Dec. 15 to April 1 every year, explained Laura DiPietro, Deputy Director of the Water Quality Division at the Agency of Agriculture. Each year, on average, the agency receives six or seven requests for exemptions, which it must investigate before granting.
If a manure pit is overflowing to water, the Agency of Agriculture refers the farm to ANR, which handles such cases, DiPietro said.
If the pit is overtopping to land, the Agency of Agriculture asks the farmer to call at least three other farmers to see if they have room in their pits to accommodate the extra manure. Since providing such assistance amounts to a liability for farmers, however, this rarely leads to a solution. If neighboring farms decline, sometimes the agency will make its own phone calls, DiPietro said.
At the same time, a whole lot of math happens, along with meteorological and calendar considerations, to determine the best-case scenario.
Then and only then will the agency make a decision on the exemption request.
“However,” DiPietro emphasized, “no one can spread and have it run off into surface water. There’s a requirement that says if you apply in such a way in which fields are saturated, the conditions are not conducive and it runs off into the water — that is a violation. And so we enforce on that.”
The agency is typically well-equipped to deal with the average number of these time-consuming and labor-intensive requests, but last year was not an average year.
“We got 25 requests,” DiPietro said, four times the average. The agency granted 19 of these requests, including one to Allendale Farm.
For several reasons, including the fact that Claudia and Joe Allen were sitting in the audience, DiPietro and her colleagues would not go into the details of that case, which has now been referred to ANR for alleged violations, among them, according to public documents, failing to maintain storage capacity for 180 days’ worth of manure, as specified by law.
ANR is currently investigating the case.
The Allens did not immediately respond to the Independent’s request for a comment.
Monday night’s audience found plenty to criticize about the Agency of Agriculture without getting into specifics, however.
“I used to be able to drink from (Lake Champlain) — with no purification,” said John Viskup, a former chair of the Panton selectboard. “Now you can’t even let your dog drink it. I hope your attitude toward runoff has changed, because previously it was totally protective of the farming operation to the detriment of our lake and waterways.”
Bridport resident Laurel Casey, whose house is situated near Lake Champlain, brought her dog with her, and lamented the recent news that two dogs in Vermont had died after ingesting poisonous blue-green algae in a private pond. That algae, known as Cyanobacteria, is often stimulated by agricultural runoff and sewage overflows.
“I’m glad it wasn’t somebody’s grandchild,” Casey said. “That’s going to be next.”
After describing the agricultural runoff she’s witnessed around the lake, which she compared to a “horror movie,” Casey concluded that Vermont’s dairy industry is unsustainable.
“I love the cows and the farmers, but we’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” she said. “The lake is a disaster.”
Former dairy farmer James Maroney, who lives in Leicester, offered his take on the problem: excess nutrients from imported livestock feed.
“Has it ever occurred to you that we’re doing something wrong?” he asked agency officials.
Viskup’s, Casey’s and Maroney’s remarks were greeted by boisterous applause.
DiPietro assured Maroney that her agency follows federal and state standards. “That is our job,” she said.
Such answers didn’t sit well with many audience members, however, and over the course of the meeting many of them left in disgust, muttering unprintable things under their breath.
PLENTY OF BLAME
Four state lawmakers also attended the meeting — Sen. Chris Bray (D–New Haven), Sen. Ruth Hardy (D–Middlebury), Rep. Diana Lanpher (D–Vergennes) and Rep. Matt Birong (D–Vergennes) — each provided occasional legislative updates and context.
“Community engagement is a huge part of keeping this conversation going,” Birong said. Markowski’s video, he added, was “worth its weight in gold.” But, he said, “that was just putting a lens on one situation that everybody knows exists. There’s plenty of blame to go around with water quality.”
Indeed, on June 20 and July 2 alone, Brandon, Middlebury and Rutland City combined to release more than a million gallons of combined sewer overflows (CSO) into Otter Creek, which feeds the lake.
According to the U.S. environmental protection agency, CSOs contain untreated or partially treated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris, as well as storm water.
At the same time, the state seems to be at an impasse when it comes to addressing lake cleanup.
Hours before Monday’s meeting got underway in Panton, State Auditor Doug Hoffer released a new report called “Where’s the Money Flowing? Cost-Effectiveness of Lake Champlain Cleanup Efforts.”
The purpose of the analysis detailed in the report, according to the accompanying press release, was to help guide state efforts in addressing water quality.
“But, with limited public dollars available, the State needs to make more cost-effective use of its investments to address this problem.”
But that doesn’t seem to be happening, the report concluded.
“First, a majority of clean water funding was allocated to low-impact infrastructure projects instead of the cost-effective sectors of agriculture and natural resources, which contribute a majority of phosphorus to Lake Champlain,” the press release continued. “Second, the analysis identified data quality problems for assessing the impact of clean water projects.”
Where agriculture is concerned, agency officials at Monday’s meeting pointed out that no-till and cover cropping are on the rise around the state. They also described efforts to educate farmers about manure storage strategies.
Funding for those strategies has come in part from government programs, such as the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, run by the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, which last month awarded a total of $507,000 to 14 state farms.
Among them was Allendale Farm, which received a $40,000 Water Quality Grant “for equipment to manage manure.”
ANR receives almost 2,000 environmental complaints a year, said Kim Greenwood, the agency’s Director of Environmental Compliance, at Monday’s meeting.
“We rely very heavily on that information from you all,” she said. “We have a team of only seven officers around the state, so we need and want to hear from you. If you’re seeing things, please call us — for any suspected environmental violation.”
To file a complaint, she said, call 802-828-1254 or visit https://dec.vermont.gov/content/environmental-violation-report.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].