Scott Unveils Phosphorus Plan

Published: 2/4/2018 12:14:55 AM
Modified: 2/4/2018 12:14:57 AM

Montpelier — Gov. Phil Scott sketched out a plan at a dairy conference last week that could include making money from the pollutant plaguing Vermont’s waterways — phosphorus.

The proposal to “crowdsource” ideas to remove phosphorus from cow manure included no specific reduction goals and could take a minimum of 18 to 24 months to implement.

Scott brought along three agency heads to help outline the proposal. They insisted the technology exists to extract phosphorus from manure to be sold or combined with other products.

The presentation was made at the Vermont Farm Show at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction. Dairy farms are the largest contributors to the overload of phosphorus that has caused cyanobacteria blooms and closed beaches on Lake Champlain. The state is under a federal order to reduce the phosphorus levels.

At the same press event, Scott reiterated his opposition to lawmakers who want to raise taxes for the estimated $1.2 billion the lake cleanup will cost the state over the next 20 years.

Scott’s proposed “Phosphorus Innovation Challenge” would offer innovators and entrepreneurs as much as $300,000 to solve the problem by selling cow manure.

Flanked by Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Agency of Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling, Scott said he was pursuing a “proactive solution.” He said his approach offered “a new way of thinking about phosphorus and a new opportunity to solve our nutrient issues ... creating business opportunities and cleaner water for Vermonters.”

“We believe this approach could allow us to mitigate the impact of phosphorus in more cost-effective ways, produce better outcomes with an opportunity to generate revenue and create jobs,” Scott said.

An economics professor at the University of Vermont said he is “skeptical” of the idea.

“My sense is ... if it were economical to do it right now there’d be a business somebody would have started to do it,” said UVM economist Art Woolf. “You wouldn’t need the government to tell you there’s a profit opportunity here.”

The Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, whose lawsuit led to the federal cleanup order, said he had no position on Scott’s “innovation challenge.”

“We remain focused on the larger and more well-defined task of implementing the regulatory programs and raising the money to actually clean up Lake Champlain,” said Chris Killian.

Another environmentalist, Lauren Hierl, political director at the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, offered more pointed remarks.

“With such urgent needs for cleaning up our waters, (Vermont Conservation Voters) believes we should be spending our limited state resources on programs we already know will reduce water pollution,” Hierl said. “Focusing a significant amount of time and money on unproven technological solutions like those proposed in the phosphorus innovation challenge should not distract us from robustly funding and carrying out the clean-up plan we already have in place.”

Last year, the Legislature order the Scott administration to come up with a long-term funding source, but the administration failed to develop one. Instead, Scott’s team argues the state should spend capital funds as well as a small surcharge on the property transfer tax to pay to close a gap in funding. Scott has insisted he will block efforts to raise taxes to pay for the cleanup.

Despite the depth of the problem, officials insisted the Phosphorus Innovation Challenge could be significant. Scott likened the idea to the repurposing of whey, a byproduct from cheese production once considered a pollutant that is now used in protein powders.

Scott’s team praised the governor for trying to get ahead of the problem and pursuing ways to avoid adding more phosphorus to the already overtaxed waterways.

“Government typically responds to things after they emerge,” said Schirling, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “We’re pretty good at reacting. Being proactive and solving problems ahead of time is new territory.”

Details, however, were few.

Officials said there was no goal for how much pollution would be removed. The timeline laid out could mean that any idea that is found to be acceptable would likely take 18 to 24 months before it could be implemented, according to Moore.

How much Vermonters might pay for these ideas would depend on how good the ideas are, according to Schirling.

Unidentified “experts,” such as scientists and entrepreneurs, would evaluate proposals to determine whether they’re viable, Scott said.

This approach, he believes, will produce results.

“Some of these ideas are out there, and nobody’s listening,” Scott said. “There’s hundreds of them, I’m sure.”

Lawmakers are now drafting legislation that would “declare Lake Carmi to be a lake in crisis.”

The bill would direct Moore to take emergency action to address toxic, green cyanobacterial blooms that closed the lake to swimming, drinking and fishing for several months last year. Farms in that area are responsible for 85 percent of the phosphorus pollution that caused the bacterial outbreak.

Scott said Thursday that he will block legislators from raising revenue if they should attempt it through a bill called S.260, which would place a $40 annual fee on all Vermont parcels. The proposed law would also establish a surcharge on parcels that have an adverse impact on water quality, including commercial properties with large parking lots and farms that are releasing phosphorus into the waters of the state. Parking lots are considered to be a large phosphorus contributor.

The Environmental Protection Agency has given Vermont 20 years to bring Lake Champlain into compliance with federal clean water laws.

Speaking to a crowd of dairy farmers earlier, Scott praised them for their $2.2 billion annual “economic impact” and for supporting more than 6,000 Vermont jobs that pay $360 million each year in wages.

“I look forward to continuing to work closely with (Secretary Tebbetts) and his team to ensure this industry continues to thrive and remains an important cornerstone of Vermont’s economy, heritage and culture,” Scott said.

Woolf, for his part, took issue with the description of dairy farming as an important cornerstone of the state’s economy. “From an economic standpoint, it’s not all that important,” he said.

Fewer than 800 dairies exist in the state, and together they employ maybe 1 percent to 2 percent of Vermont workers, Woolf said. Farm workers take home an average pay of around $32,000, according to Vermont Department of Labor statistics.

“It’s not a big part of the economy,” Woolf said. “It’s not a big part of the economy anywhere in the United States.”

Culturally, farming may be important to some Vermonters, but so too were woolen mills in the mid-1900s, he said.

“If your goal is to reduce phosphorus, it might be better just to get rid of the dairy farms in Vermont — it might be cheaper,” he said. “If you’re looking to clean up Lake Champlain you have to ask what’s the cheapest way to do it. The cheapest way to do it might be not to have dairy farms.”

Vermonters are expected to subsidize farmers’ pollution-reduction efforts because state law, as Scott cited in a circular his staffers passed out at the event, requires them to.

“The cost of meeting these standards shall not be borne by farmers only, but rather by all members of society, who are in fact the beneficiaries,” said Scott’s brochure, directly quoting from Vermont statute.

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