Two thousand-eight will go down in the history books as a year marked by devastating storms, audacious terrorist attacks, shameful abuses of power and the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression. Soon after Americans cashed their $600 “economic stimulus” checks, Wall Street bankers buried their snouts in a $700 billion bailout trough. There’s little evidence to suggest that the economy has been “stimulated.”
But 2008 will be remembered, first and foremost, as the year Americans overcame their long and painful history of institutionalized racism and elected the first African American to the nation’s highest office. On November 4, Vermonters watched proudly as their state was the first to throw its electoral votes behind Barack Obama — a stinging rebuke of George W. Bush, who in eight years never once visited the Green Mountain State. If he had, Vermonters likely would have greeted him with dozens of local resolutions and public referenda calling for his
While national and global news often eclipsed local events in 2008, many smaller but important stories showed up in Seven Days. In Burlington, voters opted to preserve the Moran Plant, a hulking relic of the fossil-fuel age, and convert the former coal-fired plant on Lake Champlain into an eco-friendly recreational mecca.
Later in the year, Burlingtonians told Burlington Telecom they didn’t want their municipally owned cable provider deciding what they can watch. By more than a 4:1 margin, Burlingtonians urged city council to keep Al Jazeera English on the air — though more than a few suggested that they wouldn’t mind if Fox News disappeared from the dial.
At the state level, Gov. Jim Douglas announced his plans to slash hundreds of union jobs from the state payroll, after giving members of his own team robust raises. And as his Agency of Natural Resources was moving at lightning speed to close down Intervale Composting, an invaluable community resource that keeps tons of organic waste out of local landfills, the Agency dragged its feet, or ignored, far more pressing environmental concerns. The state looked the other way for an unlicensed junkyard in Milton, a problematic chemical disinfectant in the Champlain Water District, an aging, trouble-plagued nuke plant, and a stealth effort to privatize Vermont’s groundwater.
Ever find yourself asking: What ever happened with that? Well, so do we. That’s why we’ve gone back to update some of the stories Seven Days covered in 2008. Like every newspaper, ours is limited by space and resources, but we strive to find stories that other media outlets overlook. To that end, we need and appreciate your help. We’re eternally grateful to readers who provide us with story ideas, letters to the editor, blog posts, emails and phone calls. Whether you’ve been critical or complimentary of our work, we couldn’t do our jobs without you.
Groundwater doesn’t always rise to the level of “big story,” but Vermont’s underground aquifers made headlines in June when Gov. James Douglas signed Act 199 into law.
The Act, championed by the Vermont Natural Resources Council and opposed by bottled-water industry lobbyists, makes groundwater a protected “public trust resource” and imposes new restrictions on commercial-scale water extraction.
When Seven Days first reported on groundwater in February, a few Randolph residents were fighting a local ClearSource water-bottling plant. But on May 8, The Herald of Randolph reported that the plant closed unexpectedly, laying off more than 55 employees. The plant’s equipment was auctioned off on September 18 to bottled-water industry buyers, according to Stan Davis, a managing partner at the Pennsylvania auction firm Harry Davis & Company.
Randolph Town Manager Gary Champy, who started his job in October, isn’t sure what to make of the now-vacant bottling plant. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “I was given an 800 number and I called it, but it was nothing more than a Bank of America investment person who had no clue what I was talking about.”
In a June 25 cover story, Seven Days investigated Burlington’s largely unregulated taxi business. Queen City cabbies, administrators and public officials all told us that taxi fares and enforcement protocols needed an overhaul. “The system as a whole is kind of broke,” said Paul Robar, owner of the city’s largest taxi operator, Benways Transportation. “If you’re going to make a set of rules, enforce ’em!”
On September 2, cabbies met city officials at City Hall. After hearing public testimony, City Councilor Clarence Davis (P-Ward 3), who chairs the council’s license committee, said he thought the city should police illegal surcharges and ensure that drivers post informational materials in their cockpits. “I think the time is right for some changes to be made to the ordinances,” said Davis.
Recently, we emailed Davis to ask what, if anything, has been accomplished since September. Davis said the process is on “hiatus” due to scheduling conflicts, and that he plans to present the city council with recommendations by April.
“If it’s going to be April, we’re all going to be waiting with bated breath,” said Matt Kelsh, a longtime local cabbie who attended the September meeting at City Hall. In the meantime, he added, a slumping economy might eliminate a few operators by natural selection.
More CEDO dollars in action
Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office is spending a new $274,000 community service grant. According to Beth Truzansky of CEDO’s Center for Community & Neighborhoods, the grant will pay 25 Americorps employees to work in 13 local schools and agencies through next fall.
That’s good news for CEDO, which lost 21 of 41 positions from a related Americorps*VISTA program in August. While the two programs have different goals, Truzanksy explains, “The point is, we are building capacity within the city to serve low-income people.”
The new program, she adds, is less “homogenous.” Whereas VISTA organizers are usually white and college-educated, nine of the 25 new Americorps hires are people of color, and 11 have families of their own.
For years, a group of Milton residents has been pressing state and local officials to take decisive action against ABC Metals/Rhoades Salvage, an unlicensed junkyard that’s been operating in town since the 1950s. As Seven Days reported in August, the junkyard has irked officials for more than a decade due to concerns ranging from a dangerously large scrap-tire pile to possible soil and groundwater contamination. Despite all the concern, the scrapyard has been allowed to remain open.
Last week, Gary Lipson, a site manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 1 headquarters in Boston, reported that he visited the junkyard in October and tested the soil there, in neighboring Hobbes Pond and at five adjacent properties. He was looking for a range of contaminants, including heavy metals, PCBs, volatiles and semi-volatiles.
Lipson, who is still reviewing the results, wasn’t comfortable interpreting the data yet for public consumption due to, as he put it, “a couple of funky samples” in the batch.
“As a whole, I don’t think it’s as bad as we thought,” he said. “Nothing jumped up where I’d call the residents screaming and say, ‘My God! Get out of the house!’”
As for Rhoades’ mountain of used tires, which number in the hundreds of thousands, two tractor-trailer loads were finally removed this fall under court order. Still, it barely made a dent.
Asked if there’s anything the EPA could do to finish the job, Lipson said he’d like to see the tires removed, but admitted it’s beyond his authority. As he put it, “It’s a solid-waste issue and my program can’t do anything about it . . . unless it were on fire, that is.”
One of Vermont’s biggest congregations, the Essex Alliance Church, may soon have a new home. Seven Days first reported on the outsized evangelical Protestant flock in November 2006, when Essex Alliance was seeking approval to build a multipurpose 169,000-square-foot facility on 54 acres in Williston. The church’s purchase of the building site was contingent on city approval, which it secured in 2007.
As we reported in a March story, “Can I Get a Witness?” the church’s 45,000-square-foot Essex Junction headquarters is jam-packed most Sundays. Counting attendees who watch a simulcast at a nearby movie theater, Pastor Scott Slocum’s sermons reach about 1600 people —it’s the closest thing in Vermont to a “megachurch.”
In a December 15 phone message for Seven Days, Slocum said his church purchased property in Williston last month, but doesn’t have any specific development timeline in mind.
Matt Boulanger, a senior planner at the Williston Planning and Zoning Department, said the church might have to reapply for Development Review Board approval if its new plan is substantially different from the one it submitted to Williston officials in 2006.
“Either way,” said Boulanger, “there’s significant public process ahead of them in terms of going through their site-design review.”
Neutrino floats again
In early summer, Burlington hipsters spotted an elderly gentleman lounging outside the Radio Bean Coffeehouse. It was Poppa Neutrino, an internationally acclaimed voyager who once sailed the Atlantic on a raft made from garbage.
A few weeks later, Neutrino and Radio Bean founder Lee Anderson established the oWL PaRTY, a new civic group grounded in the teachings of Middle Eastern mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. Neutrino also began consulting on plans for a 125-by-28-foot garbage raft, which oWLites hope to sail on Lake Champlain next year.
Neutrino, 75, is now living in New Orleans and says he will eventually come back to the Queen City, but it may take awhile: Next month, Neutrino, Anderson and other Burlington bohèmes will retrieve a 50-by-22-foot raft in Panama City. Some crewmembers will fly home once the garbage raft is seaworthy, but Neutrino plans to circumnavigate the globe on his raft voyage back to Vermont. If he fails to raise enough money, he hopes to return in time for the oWL PaRTY’s maiden voyage on Champlain. Meanwhile, Neutrino is writing his autobiography — The Seventy-Five-Year-Old Man on Fire — and sending $20 monthly donations to the Crash Collective “infoshop,” a community space that opened recently on Bank Street.
“This is the time to be alive,” Neutrino said the other day from New Orleans. “We’ve been though struggles, civil wars, revolutions. Now, with the election of a black president, we’re in striking distance of putting out a whole new dimension.”
Back in June, Seven Days reported on a conflict between concerned Bristol residents and Jim Lathrop, a local businessman who wants to open a 39-acre gravel pit about a mile from the center of town.
Gravel pits are nothing new in the Green Mountains, but according to the nonprofit Smart Growth Vermont, Bristol’s case illustrates the ongoing tensions between industrial development and land-use planning in many small Vermont towns.
In September, Bristol’s zoning board of adjustment rejected Lathrop’s most recent pit proposal. Anti-pit advocates such as John Moyers, an outspoken Bristol landlord and son of TV journalist Bill Moyers, claimed the decision as a victory. “I think Mr. Lathrop should be pretty angry at his attorney,” he told Seven Days.
But Lathrop’s attorney, Mark Hall, sees things differently. After September’s ZBA decision, Hall said the decision was “not even close to being fatal,” and that his client may file an appeal in Vermont Environmental Court. On December 9, Hall emailed Seven Days a two-sentence update: “The decision was appealed. We at the environmental court right now.”
Who needs verbs?
When their young charges informed Girl Scout troop leaders Jennifer Mignano and Chandelle Trahan they wanted to “do something with dogs” as part of their community service project, the women never imagined the girls would lead them into the minefields of Bosnia and Lebanon.
But as Seven Days reported in March, the 11- and 12-year-olds of Williston Troop 820 and Essex Junction Troop 125 were serious about raising money to buy and train a landmine-detection dog for the Marshall Legacy Institute. The primary mission of the Virginia-based nonprofit is to educate the public about landmines, which kill or maim about 20,000 people annually.
Mine-sniffing dogs aren’t cheap — it costs about $20,000 to purchase, train and deploy one with an overseas handler. But the girls of troops 820 and 125 raised that and more. With $20,000, they purchased “Champlain,” a 2-year-old German shepherd now training in Lebanon. With an additional $6000, the girls bought a prosthetic limb for 17-year-old Anita Vidovic of Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who lost her leg to a landmine.
In June, Mignano and her daughter, Maria, 13, traveled to Bosnia, where they visited a landmine-clearing operation, met the handlers and watched the canines in action. “It was quite a moment when we walked around the corner and saw the dogs working for the first time,” Mignano recalls. “We gained so much respect for these animals.”
Mignano and her daughter also met Vidovic in person and ate dinner with her and her parents. “From one parent to another, it was a pretty intense moment,” Mignano recalls.
Then, not long ago, fellow scout leader Trahan returned from a trip to Lebanon. Due to the risks of traveling in that region, Trahan couldn’t bring along her daughter, Katie. But she did get to watch Champlain train, and saw firsthand the pride on his handler’s face.
Thus far, Vermont has purchased four mine-detection dogs — more than any other state. Mignano and Trahan, whom the Marshall Legacy Institute recognized this spring as “leaders of the year,” are now working to get other schools and youth groups involved in landmine education.
“America’s Army” storms Winooski
Speaking of war zones, Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center just got a major publicity bump from the U.S. military. The EMC, a cutting-edge computer program that bridges the gap between a college education and careers in the computer sector, just announced the completion of two new “missions” for the Pentagon-sponsored “America’s Army,” one of most successful online computer games in history. In October, Seven Days wrote about the EMC’s work on video games for kids with cystic fibrosis.
“America’s Army” was launched in 2002 as a “communications method” (read: recruitment tool) to reach young people who want to learn more about Army life, according to “America’s Army” PR Director Lori Mezoff. It boasts more than 9.4 million registered users in 60 countries.
“The goal is to reach people who don’t have a personal touch with the Army,” Mezoff explains. “They may not have a relative or friend in the Army. So this is kind of an insider’s look at what it’s like to be a soldier.”
Over the summer, about a dozen Champlain College students began working with AA’s development team in Emeryville, California on two new missions: “District,” a nighttime urban scenario set in a “vaguely eastern European city;” and “Canyon,” a scenario set in a Middle Eastern mountain village where the local warlord has recently stolen a cache of heavy weapons. EMC got no financial compensation for its Army work, although it did receive considerable technical advice and data assistance.
Sarah Jerger, EMC’s operations manager, explains that although the military imposed certain preconditions on the student-developed missions — Special Forces personnel actually review the missions for accuracy and realism — students had a lot of freedom to make the game both entertaining and educational.
“What makes this game different than any other kind of Army or shooter game is that there are consequences for your actions,” Jerger explains. “You can’t just go through it and shoot up innocent villagers. You’ll get sent to the brig.”
Needless to say, not everyone in the educational world is thrilled by such collaborations. Roger Stahl, a communications professor at the University of Georgia, has coined a term for “America’s Army” and similar video games: “militainment,” or the packaging of war for pleasurable consumption via America’s entertainment industries, including film, television, sports, toys and video games.
A spokesperson for “America’s Army” couldn’t offer statistics on the game’s effectiveness as a recruitment tool. But since it costs the military, on average, $15,000 to woo each new recruit, Stahl claims the game need only draw in 300 new enlistees each year to pay for itself. In 2005, he noted, four in ten Army enlistees reported that they had played the game. Talk about bang for your buck.
Eating another kind of lead
In September, Seven Days first reported that construction done over the summer at the University of Vermont’s Williams Hall had resulted in elevated levels of lead dust in the 112-year-old building while faculty, staff and students were present. That disclosure prompted a state investigation and the university’s health service to offer free blood lead screenings to anyone who may have been exposed.
Last week, Robert McLeod, manager of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA) reported that two citations were issued — one to UVM and the other to its contractor, Bread Loaf Construction, for improper lead dust management. A second contractor, J.A. Morrissey Construction, which also worked on Williams Hall last summer, was exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Wipe samples taken by a VOSHA investigator a few months ago turned up surface lead contamination that exceeded state and federal standards, McLeod reports. According to the VOSHA report, Bread Loaf Construction failed to adequately implement the company’s lead compliance program and was hit with a $2500 fine. UVM was cited for not conducting frequent and regular inspections and was fined $5250.
Bad timing for the cash-strapped university. The good news? Thus far, no students, faculty or staff have turned up with elevated blood lead levels.
Speaking of lead
A city administrator reports that the Burlington Lead Program is still struggling to spend the $2.8 million grant it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The HUD money is supposed to fund 180 lead-abatement projects throughout Burlington, a city with the seventh-oldest housing stock in the nation. But in August, Jeff Tanguay of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office told Seven Days that despite a direct mailing campaign to 600 landlords, contractors had completed only seven abatement jobs. As of mid-December, that number had climbed to 16 — still about 10 shy of CEDO’s projected goal.
Still, Tanguay says he’s hopeful that applications will pick up in 2009. The Vermont Attorney General is sending letters to Burlington landlords, he notes, and Burlington city councilors are reviewing a proposed ordinance that would authorize city inspectors to enforce a 2008 federal law aimed at minimizing harmful lead dust.
The lead program has also “sweetened the pot” for prospective landlords, Tanguay adds. Whereas participating single-family-home landlords previously got a 50 percent lead-abatement refund after 10 years, they now get a full refund after five years.
“You’re not going to find any better deal than that,” he asserts. “It’s basically free money that we’re trying to give away.”