State environmental officials struggle with Water Board ruling

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(Host) Vermont environmental officials are scrambling to deal with a Water Resources Board ruling that imposed new stormwater permit requirements on developers. The Douglas administration says the ruling could unravel years of work to clean up damaged streams. But the environmental group that led the litigation says the decision should hold the state and developers accountable for water pollution.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The Water Resources Board decision dealt with five streams in Chittenden County. The board said developers in the five watersheds must get a federal, rather than a state permit to control stormwater pollution.

But Environmental Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg says the impact could be felt statewide, and possibly around the country.

(Wennberg) “This is a national precedent of very significant proportion.”

(Dillon) According to Wennberg, it’s the first time in the 32-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the federal permit requirement has been extended in this way. Wennberg is upset because the Douglas administration has worked on the stormwater problem for years.

Last spring, the administration crafted legislation that requires the state to develop detailed stream clean up plans. The law also set up an interim program that allowed projects to go ahead if they could offset the pollution in the same watershed.

(Wennberg) “We’re now in the process of implementing that. We’re developing rules. We’re working with all the various parties. We’re spending sums of money on scientific and engineering studies. All of this has been thrown totally into chaos by this decision.”

(Dillon) Stormwater control had been under state jurisdiction and Wennberg says there are no federal standards or guidelines to follow. According to Wennberg, the board’s ruling means that thousands of properties around the state will suddenly need to get a federal permit.

The commissioner is considering an appeal, or he may ask the board to reconsider its ruling. Wennberg also had strong words for the Conservation Law Foundation, the group that brought the case. He says CLF has used the litigation to try to slow development in the region.

But Chris Kilian, the CLF lawyer on the stormwater case, says the group’s goal is pro-water, not anti-growth.

(Kilian) “The Agency of Natural Resources has dragged its feet for 20 years on stormwater clean up. The only reason these waters are in bad shape today and development is being held to a higher standard and slowed down is because the Agency of Natural Resources has completely failed in its obligation in protecting these waters. Commissioner Wennberg can decide how this is going to go. He has the authority to require these waters to be cleaned up and to do so in a manner that will allow growth to go forward.”

(Dillon) Kilian says the federal law is clear. He says the Clean Water Act for three decades has prohibited additional pollution into streams that already fail water quality standards.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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