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Smoke on the Water

Local Matters


Published May 12, 2004 at 6:53 p.m.

Vermont takes more than it gives -- air pollution, that is. The Green Mountain State doesn't have much heavy industry, but it's on the receiving end of toxic emissions from smokestacks and incinerators that are hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. And if International Paper in Ticonderoga, New York, gets a permit to burn 72 tons of old tires each day for energy, Vermonters will bear an even heavier toxic load.

Since January, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has been operating two air-quality monitoring stations in Shoreham, about two and a half miles from the IP mill. Their purpose is to get a baseline picture of existing air-pollution levels before any tires are burned. According to George Apgar, monitoring section supervisor at the DEC's Air Pollution Control Division, the state is measuring 19 different industrial pollutants, primarily heavy metals such as lead, zinc, chromium and arsenic.

Air-pollution monitoring isn't cheap -- the equipment alone costs about $100,000. And though much of it was already on hand at the DEC or borrowed from other states, Apgar says it's a labor-intensive process. The monitors must be serviced once a week, which takes about half a day. And Vermont taxpayers, not International Paper, are picking up the tab.

That cost would be even higher if the DEC were checking for the most hazardous emissions that come from burning tires: dioxins. In the pantheon of industrial byproducts, dioxins are among the nastiest. They are actually a class of some 240 different compounds, 17 of which are highly toxic to humans. Unlike heavy metals, there is no safe level of exposure. Aside from causing cancer, dioxins wreak havoc on the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems, causing birth defects, miscarriages, decreased fertility, diabetes, learning disabilities and a host of other problems.

Dioxins are "bio-accumulators," building up in animal tissue and entering the body through food -- primarily beef, milk and other dairy products. Needless to say, the presence of more dioxins in local milk and cheese is anathema to the wholesome image Vermont's dairy industry tries to convey.

Currently, the DEC has no plans to monitor for dioxins from the IP mill, even if the test burn is approved. Why? "Dioxin levels are going to be so small and diluted that it would be nearly impossible to pick up some sort of impact here," says DEC environmental analyst Doug Elliott. The DEC, he adds, has "scoured the literature that's out there, and dioxin is not something that we'd expect to see an increase of."

"Scoured" may be too strong a word. Dr. Jean Anderson is professor emerita in natural resources and environmental studies at the University of Vermont. She says it's "a physical impossibility" to burn tires and not produces dioxins. And even if IP's tire burn barely increase dioxin levels in Vermont, a little bit is too much.

In 1997, Anderson used complex computer models and air sampling on farms in Vermont and Wisconsin to study the long-distance migration of dioxins. She says that measuring for dioxins at or near a smokestack isn't enough to predict what happens to those compounds once they encounter moisture and sunlight and recombine with other elements in the atmosphere. In fact, dioxin levels can be very low inside a smokestack but spike 20 to 30 miles away.

"In the St. Albans area, we know that the dioxin that gets into dairy milk comes from a secondary copper smelter in Quebec 600 miles to the north," Anderson says. "And we know that the dioxins that we get in the middle part of the state come from the municipal-waste incinerator in Glens Falls, New York."

Anderson's interest is more than just academic. She and her husband live in Ferris-urgh and own Five Mile Point in Shoreham, which is spitting distance from the IP mill. While she acknowledges that burning tires may save IP millions of dollars in energy costs, "I don't think that's a good enough reason to endanger the health of this generation of Vermonters, and the next two generations."

Not everything that drifts across Lake Champlain from New York is unwelcome. One of the most scenic travel routes into Vermont is the ferry that runs between Essex, New York, and Charlotte. In recent weeks, a story has been floating in the press that the Lake Champlain Transportation Company (LCT) will be discontinuing that ferry next January. Such a move would affect thousands of commuters who save an hour or more of driving each way, depending upon traffic and weather conditions.

Docking that ferry would be more than just an inconvenience. One regular customer says it could be a life-and-death decision. Robert Hoag, president of the Lamoille Ambulance Service in Johnson, wrote to LCT owner Trey Pecor to say that his ambulance crews use the ferry about 200 times a year to transport patients to and from New York's Adirondack Medical Center and Elizabethtown Community Hospital.

But reports of the ferry's demise may be little more than bilge water. At a community meeting last week in Essex, Pecor reassured some 100 concerned commuters that the ferry will continue operating for the foreseeable future. Though he admitted that the ferry needs at least 175 cars per day in the winter to break even -- currently, it gets about 130 -- Pecor has no plans to dry-dock the ship. "Really, there's not much to this," Pecor tells Seven Days. "I'm certainly not selling it or closing it. It's a wonderful crossing."