Vermont’s Lakes and Rivers Face Emerging Threats. Can We Address Them? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Vermont’s Lakes and Rivers Face Emerging Threats. Can We Address Them?

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Vermont has spent nearly $200 million in the past five years to clean up its waterways. But the threats to water quality only seem to have intensified, reinforcing the questions in some quarters about whether the state really has the will to do what's necessary to restore lakes and streams.

Much of the focus in recent years has been on efforts to reduce phosphorus pollution, especially in Lake Champlain, because that nutrient fuels sometimes-toxic algae blooms, turns the water green and closes beaches. Now there appears to be a new reason — or at least a newly discovered and scary-sounding one — to worry about the health effects of the blooms.

It's been known for some time that cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae, produces toxins that can become airborne and are suspected of being factors in causing chronic neurological diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and possibly Parkinson's disease. Now new research centered on a cyanobacteria-plagued pond on Nantucket has tied blue-green algae to a different natural but poisonous compound, anatoxin-a. It's been linked to cattle deaths in Canada and has earned the ominous moniker VFDF — for "very fast death factor."

The Nantucket Land Council recently announced that air sampling in 2019 by its consulting scientists had, for the first time, detected the toxin airborne near a body of water. VFDF "can cause a range of symptoms at acute doses, including loss of coordination, muscular twitching and respiratory paralysis, and has been linked to the deaths of livestock, waterfowl and dogs from drinking contaminated water," the council announced earlier this month.

It's "quite likely" that researchers would find the same toxin near parts of Lake Champlain and other Vermont bodies of water hit by cyanobacteria blooms, said Dr. Elijah Stommel, a neurologist at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center. Stommel has been one of the leading researchers examining links between cyanobacteria and ALS.

"If you get a bad enough bloom, [it] should aerosolize into the air around Lake Champlain as easily as it can into the air around Nantucket," Stommel said.

Is anyone checking in Vermont to see whether this might be happening? State toxicologist Sarah Vose first cautioned against exaggerating the danger found in Nantucket. Vose said the study was limited and detected the VFDF toxin under ideal circumstances, just a couple of feet above the pond. She said there's no indication that it can hold up to travel in the air.

Vose also recommended checking with Jason Stockwell, a University of Vermont researcher who has been on the hunt for cyanobacteria. His work so far has involved testing for cyanobacteria in the air around Shelburne Pond, which is a hot spot for the blooms. "However, COVID has greatly slowed our sample processing down, so we do not have any results yet," he told Fair Game. Stockwell added that his team's testing had included air sampling, but that it mainly had been looking for microcystins, a different toxin.

Stommel said one factor that has slowed research such as this is that property and business owners — and especially politicians — often don't want to know. "If you have bad blooms on any lake, it's going to affect the economy," Stommel said, pointing to algae-plagued places on Lake Champlain "where people can't rent out their summer camps ... It affects the economy whether you want to know it or not."

As if that weren't enough to worry about, PFAS-class chemicals, the stuff that has extensively polluted groundwater around North Bennington, have turned up in Shelburne's drinking water, according to reporting by the Guardian newspaper and Consumer Reports. Shelburne is part of the Champlain Water District, which serves about 75,000 residents in eight towns. Seven Days' Kevin McCallum reported that the Shelburne test result of 5.77 parts per trillion was well below the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion and Vermont's more stringent 20-parts-per-trillion level. But any detectable level of a chemical tied to immune system problems and elevated risk for some cancers bears watching.

Joseph Duncan, the water district's general manager, told Seven Days that tests at the treatment plant and other spots in the distribution network haven't turned up PFAS. The positive result came from sampling by volunteers.

Water quality advocates such as James Ehlers of Winooski say they're worried not only about cleaning up existing problems, but that decisions being made now may cause new ones.

Everyone wants more affordable housing, especially in our city and village centers. But Ehlers noted that every time a couple of flush toilets are installed in a community where heavy rain triggers sewage overflows, you raise the future risk of cyanobacteria blooms in downstream waters. Despite those concerns, the Senate recently passed legislation to make sewer hookups for some new housing easier; it's pending in the House.

Ehlers also criticized lawmakers' lack of action on ending the use of fire-fighting foams containing PFAS. Environmentalists want them banned to ensure that they cannot pollute water supplies. He said there are alternative foams but that lawmakers had backed away from requiring them under pressure from the Vermont National Guard.

As if all that weren't enough, there's a plan by Lake Champlain Transportation to junk an obsolete ferry at the bottom of the lake, a mile off the Burlington waterfront. The company says the boat would be cleaned to federal Environmental Protection Agency standards before being sent to its watery grave. Environmentalists say the possibility of the boat's lead paint and polychlorinated biphenyls leaching into the lake gives them a sinking feeling. Ehlers urged the public to rise up and "stop wealthy people from sinking their financial liabilities in an already compromised public drinking water supply [and] prevent the transfer of this liability to Vermont taxpayers and drinking water ratepayers."

If there is one unifying theme here, it's that water quality takes close watching by the public. Eternal vigilance is the price not just of liberty, but of ensuring that our kids and grandkids will have clean water to drink. The public should be pressing lawmakers to take these issues more seriously.

Waiting for Weighting

Nearly a quarter century after the Vermont Supreme Court's landmark Brigham decision and follow-up legislation to equalize educational opportunities and school tax burdens around the state, the goal of equity remains elusive.

According to researchers hired by the legislature in 2019, that's largely because Vermont does an inadequate job of measuring how much it costs to educate individual students. Some pupils cost more to teach, including those from impoverished backgrounds, students who come from non-English-speaking families, and those who attend small, rural schools that are unable to take advantage of economies of scale. When state aid to local school districts doesn't account for those higher costs, unfortunate results occur.

Each school district gets funding based very roughly on how many students it has, but that's an oversimplification. Different "weights" — meaning ability to attract funding — are attributed to each student. For example, each high school student secures a school district a bit more money than an elementary school pupil, because a high school offers a broader range of courses and is more expensive to run than an elementary school. 

Rural schools are among those clamoring the loudest for relief. There's an expenditure cap in state law intended to discourage lavish spending, but some rural districts face such tough economy-of-scale issues that just providing a basic education puts them over that cap. As a result, they are hit with a penalty that requires them to pay into the state education fund $2 for every $1 they have spent over the cap. In Cabot, voters have balked at passing a school budget this year largely because they're miffed about being hit with the penalty, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union superintendent Mark Tucker said in an interview.

It's not just rural schools. Winooski, with many English language learners and students from low-income families, also shoulders extra education costs. Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski School Board, told Fair Game how the pupil weights called for in the 2019 report would benefit Winooski: The "weight" — or funding value — of each student would make it appear, for aid purposes, that the student body had roughly doubled in size.

The researchers found that the current values badly underestimate the actual costs of educating a poor student. They wrote that each low-income student should be counted not as 1.25 students — as they are under the current formula — but as 3.97 students for calculating the school's pupil count and state funding. Each English language learner would jump from being counted as 1.2 students to nearly 2.6.

The new weighting recommendations date back to December 2019. Lawmakers punted on doing anything with them last year after COVID-19 struck. This year, a Senate-passed bill pending in the House would call for a special task force to look at how to implement the recommendations. 

Some districts have been advantaged by a faulty funding system. For problems to be fixed in places such as Cabot and Winooski, taxes in the communities that benefit from the current system would have to go up, or school budgets would have to be squeezed. Three lawmakers pushing for the new funding formula to be implemented, Reps. Lucy Rogers (D-Waterville), Katherine Sims (D-Craftsbury) and Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), all said they don't want the process to devolve into a game of winners and losers.

And they want the result tied to the solid social science research the 2019 study used to determine actual educational costs, rather than guesswork based on political horse-trading.

"Once the weights are implemented, we won't have winners and losers," Rogers said in an interview. "We'll have equitable education across the board."

In its 1997 Brigham decision, the Vermont Supreme Court said that was a worthy goal. It still is. To Vermont's richer communities, it's going to be tough. In fact, if the reaction to Act 60 in rich ski towns is any predictor, there will be a fresh round of screaming bloody murder. That's because, as the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, "To those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Troubled Waters"