Petition outlines ‘dysfunctional’ relationship between Vt. Ag and Natural Resources agencies

The 41 page petition outlines a slew of allegations about a broken relationship between Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture.
Published: Mar. 23, 2022 at 8:06 AM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A petition sent to the EPA outlines a “dysfunctional” relationship between the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets when it comes to clean water standards and enforcement on farms.

Farmers must follow rules to meet EPA standards for clean water. The groups behind this petition say the goal isn’t to discredit the work farmers have done to clean up Lake Champlain. Farms have been able to bring down the metric tons of phosphorus to head toward EPA targets. The EPA says farms are responsible for more than 95% of phosphorus reduction in Lake Champlain since 2016.

But the Conservation Law Foundation and other petitioners say the process for enforcement and regulation on farms could be tighter, and it’s time all the regulations be under one group. The 41-page petition outlines a slew of allegations about a broken relationship saying “corrective action” is needed immediately.

“There is a need for EPA to step in and make the agencies resolve this,” said Elena Mihaly, the vice president and director of the Vermont Conservation Law Foundation.

Mihaly says they have collected substantial evidence to suggest the two agencies split jurisdiction over water quality is creating “hostility.”

“The level of confusion has made it so that both agencies have been very frustrated at times,” said Mihaly.

Mihaly says neither agency is guilt-free, but they outline in the petition the following:

  • Hostility in communication between agencies.
  • A disagreement over technical language and which agency should then respond.
  • Claims the Agency of Agriculture ignores ANR’s authority.
  • A lack of timely referrals from AG to ANR.
  • Claims the Agency of Agriculture doesn’t finalize reports and that the agency doesn’t make sure a farmer has proper documentation of their nutrient management like manure.

Mihaly says allowing ANR to have complete jurisdiction would allow for more progress.

“This petition is not about farmers. It’s about agencies, it’s about good governance, and about if these agencies are not able to work out their dysfunctional dynamics themselves, which they have been unable to do for-- I would argue-- decades now. Then there is a need for EPA to step in and make the agencies resolve this,” said Mihaly.

To do that, the petition asks the EPA to step in and force corrective action. If that correction can’t be made, the petition calls for the state to be stripped of water pollution regulation until corrections are made.

But the Agency of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Conservation disagree.

“What you have here is a law firm that has probably cherry-picked a few examples where there could have been some conflict if it wasn’t an easy call,” said Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s agriculture secretary.

“They are selecting evidence from reams of public records requests to present the argument that they want to pick,” said Peter Walke, the Vermont Department Environmental Conservation commissioner.

Both groups maintain they are meeting clean water standards as set by the Clean Water Act.

Walke says conflict is inevitable within agencies with different mandates but plans to keep communication open with the Agency of Agriculture.

“I believe there is always a better way for two agencies to interact. I do not believe the relationship is broken,” said Walke.

Walke says he plans to look at the criticism received and check them with other stakeholders like farmers.

Tebbetts says he won’t let this be a distraction and will continue to work closely with ANR.

“I am extremely proud of the work we are doing at the Agency of Ag and extremely proud of the work going on at the other agency, ANR, our partner,” said Tebbetts.

Mihaly maintains this is now in the hands of EPA to decide how to proceed.

An EPA spokesperson says they have received the petition and plan to work with the petitioner and state in resolving the issues.

The Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition says it believes the authority should remain with the Agency of Agriculture and cites how farmers around the state have worked to reduce the phosphorus load in the lake.

“VAAFM has the technical support and funding to assist farmers with addressing these issues and adopting innovative agricultural practices,” the coalition said in a statement.

They do say more clarity is never a bad thing so that they aren’t caught in the middle.

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