Few changes in IBM pollution permit plan

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(Host) A top state official says a draft pollution permit for the IBM plant in Essex Junction contains many of the same conditions as the current five year permit. Environmentalists have criticized the state for allowing IBM to release toxic heavy metals into the Winooski River. But Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg says the river is big enough to absorb the pollution.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Under the draft permit, the computer maker can pump 265 pounds of nickel a day into the Winooski River. The permit also allows the company to release 36 pounds of lead a day, 184 pounds of chromium and almost two pounds of cadmium. These metals are considered toxic. But Environmental Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg says the Winooski is big enough to handle the load.

(Wennberg) “Obviously this is all based on the science of water quality in that particular stream. The Winooski River is one of the larger rivers in the state and as a result it is has more what’s called assimilative capacity. In other words, it has the ability to accept more or larger quantities of pollutants without violating quality standards.”

(Dillon) Wennberg also points out that IBM usually releases about half of the allowable limits.

(Wennberg) “So IBM has pretty consistently managed their discharges substantially below the legal limits that have been placed on them.”

(Dillon) But environmentalists say if IBM performs better than its state permit allows, then it should be held to a tougher standard. Ben Davis is with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

(Davis) “We would prefer to see the whole permit process focus on racheting down the level of pollutants. And we think that’s a legitimate role for a permit to say well you’re releasing this much, let’s work to get your level down a little bit. This permit as it’s written actually opens the door to much greater effluent.”

(Dillon) Davis acknowledges the proposed permit contains many of the same conditions as the current one. But he says the science on the impact of heavy metals on the environment has evolved since those standards were imposed.

(Davis) “Also in the last five years, our knowledge about the toxicity of many of these compounds has increased dramatically. Lead, for example. We now know there is no safe level of lead. Does that justify to continue to allow 36 pounds of lead per day to be dumped into the river?”

(Dillon) IBM says the waste from its plant does not harm river life or affect local drinking water supplies.

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

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