Vermont senators advanced a bill Friday to encourage the construction of more affordable housing over the objections of water quality advocates who say it will increase the amount of untreated wastewater flushed into waterways during rainstorms.
Lawmakers have been deluged in recent weeks with concerns from environmental groups and residents who worry that streamlining wastewater permits for new housing projects would only further pollute the state’s streams, rivers and lakes.
One of the most controversial provisions of the bill would delegate the state's authority to issue new water and wastewater permits to municipalities, replacing the current “redundant and costly” system, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) said.
Currently, new water and wastewater hookups require permits from both the state Department of Environmental Conservation and most municipalities. The bill, S. 101, would exempt developers from having to obtain state permits if they receive proper local permits.
Longtime water quality advocate James Ehlers said letting self-interested cities and towns approve new hookups to their already overwhelmed treatment systems will only result in more untreated waste spilling into waterways during storms.
“Unfortunately, S.101 neither makes our housing affordable nor our water any safer,” Ehlers said. “It does make things a lot easier for developers.”
Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) said he’s never received as many emails on an issue — wastewater pollution — that is not actually addressed in a bill.
What is included in the bill is $500,000 to help towns update zoning plans to encourage downtown development. It also would expand tax credits by $1.75 million to cover neighborhoods identified for growth. And it includes $100,000 to help train people in accessing tax credits to develop new housing.
Regarding the permit streamlining, Bray reassured his colleagues that local governments would still have to adhere to the same rules to which DEC regulators holds developers and engineers.
The state retains the power to clamp down on the treatment systems that are out of compliance and to help fund needed upgrades, he noted. He also said the state had in the last decade reduced by half the number of times collections systems designed to combine sewage and stormwater have overflowed into surrounding waterways.
Bray acknowledged that hooking up more homes, apartments and businesses to such systems could exacerbate the problem. He stressed that such combined systems, when not overwhelmed, also treat stormwater, which contains all manner of pollution that would otherwise flow untreated into waterways.
The amount of additional sewage released due to new hookups would be “limited” and is better than the alternative, he said.
“The only cure really is a virtual moratorium that some people would like on construction and building,” Bray said.
Ehlers has long called for a moratorium on growth in communities with systems that are operating without permits, which he says at his last count numbered 39. Some communities' permits have expired. Rutland's expired in 2008; it accounts for more than half of the annual overflows.
Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, acknowledged there is a backlog of such permits, but said many are under review following the 2016 agreement between the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency over appropriate limits on pollution for Lake Champlain.
Ehlers alleged that allowing the problem to worsen shows that even Democrats who claim to be environmentalists are willing to look the other way when it suits them.
While the state has been “delinquent and negligent” in regulating treatment systems, lawmakers, including Bray, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, are complicit, he said.
“He, along with the rest of the Vermont Senate leadership, is abdicating its moral and legal responsibility to check the executive branch,” he said.