Vermont House passes bill to clean up Lake Champlain, other waters

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MONTPELIER, Vermont — The Vermont House on Thursday passed and sent to the Senate a bill that raises more than $8 million for efforts to clean up Lake Champlain and other waters of the state.

The bill takes aim at runoff laden with phosphorus and other pollutants coming from farms, roads, roofs and parking lots. It imposes $2.3 million in new fees on owners of those properties, as well as cities and towns, and it levies a new 0.2 percent surcharge on Vermont's property transfer tax. It also steps up enforcement against polluters.

"Clean water is not something that's 'nice to have'," said Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster and chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. "It's not sort of an extra you can do without. Our economy depends on it, our lives depend on it, our very bodies depend on it."

House passage, on a 133-11 roll call vote, marked the first major hurdle being cleared for a centerpiece of Gov. Peter Shumlin's 2015 legislative agenda.

"As I said in my inaugural address, this effort is not only about cleaning up Vermont's waterways and Lake Champlain, it is about protecting our economy and a natural habitat that binds Vermonters tightly to our state and inspires others to put roots down here," Shumlin said after the House took a preliminary vote to approve the measure. "This bill sets us on a path to do that."

The bill falls short of the $15 million Deen said the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been pressing the state to set aside to address a decades-long phosphorus buildup in Lake Champlain.

Deen said it calls for prioritizing "critical source areas" for water pollution. He said he was hopeful the state could convince the EPA that strategic use of the money will enable the state to make big gains on stopping pollution from entering its waters.

Shumlin and other officials have warned that if the EPA is dissatisfied with Vermont's efforts, it could impose big new costs on cities and towns to retrofit or build new sewage treatment plants. State officials say that would be more expensive and less effective than addressing more diffuse runoff from farms, roads and other sources.

Leaders of the Republican minority in the House said they supported the goals of the legislation, but did not want to raise new taxes and fees to pay for it. Instead they proposed a series of other cost-cutting measures. Democrats countered that the House passed its version of a general fund budget last week, and that that was time to make cuts. The Republican efforts were rebuffed.

Manure is a big source of phosphorus, and among the long list of new fees will be a $2,500 imposed on farms with more than 700 animals. Smaller farms would pay smaller fees, down to $250 a year for farms with fewer than 100 animals.

Municipalities and commercial developers also would face thousands of dollars in annual fees. Backers of the legislation said much of the runoff that ends up in lakes and rivers comes from town roads.

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