Environmental group threatens companies with lawsuits

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(Host) An environmental group is threatening to sue two companies in Vermont for violating the Clean Water Act.

The Conservation Law Foundation says Pike Industries and the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative have operated without required discharge permits.

But a state environmental official says the permit delay is not the industries’ fault.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The federal Clean Water Act allows the public to go to court to enforce the law. It’s under this “citizen suit” provision that the Conservation Law Foundation has put two companies on notice that they’re operating in violation of the federal anti-pollution law.

Tim Burke runs the Lake Champlain “lakekeeper” program for CLF. He says both companies have gotten the required federal permits in other states to control storm water pollution.

(Burke) “Because of the fact that they have facilities in other states, Agri-Mark has facilities in Mass and New York, which do have the federal permit. Pike Industries has facilities in Maine and New Hampshire which has the federal permit. So from our point of view, they knew they needed these permits and we see no evidence that they have attempted to acquire them.”

(Dillon) Storm water can flush sediments, grease, phosphorus and other contaminants into nearby streams. Burke says the law requires the companies themselves to monitor the pollution. He says the notice of intent to sue gives the companies 60 days to comply, or else CLF will file a complaint in federal court.

But Agri-Mark, which operates the Cabot Creamery plant in Cabot, says the company has been wrongly accused. Doug DiMento is Agri-Mark’s spokesman, and says the company does have a permit for storm water discharges.

(DiMento) “We believe we’ve been targeted erroneously by the Conservation Law Foundation. We have a permit, an authorized discharge permit, signed by the director of the Water Quality Division on behalf of the commissioner of Environmental Conservation.”

(Dillon) But here’s where the issue gets complicated. Agri-Mark has a state permit for storm water. It doesn’t have the authorization under the federal Clean Water Act that CLF says is needed, because Vermont has not yet finalized the new permit program. The feds delegate to the state the authority to implement the law. And Vermont is one of the last states in the country to implement the permit requirements.

Jeffrey Wennberg is commissioner of environmental conservation. He says it’s unfair for the environmental group to target the companies.

(Wennberg) “I think this is kind of standard operating procedure for CLF. They’ve shown time and again that the best response to any situation is to file a lawsuit. So quite frankly, it would be more newsworthy if they chose not to. It is frustrating, quite frankly, that they would bring actions against Vermont businesses, Vermont employers.”

(Dillon) Burke, of Conservation Law Foundation, says federal law does not let the companies off the hook just because the state has been slow in drafting the permit.

Wennberg says the document is out for public comment, and should be finalized by late summer or early fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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