Tuesday, April 1, 2008

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Vermont regulations may close composter

Vermont regulations may put an end to 20 year old compost producer
By Ken McEntee
Unless a bill currently before the Vermont legislature offers a reprieve, Vermont environmental regulators appear to have succeeded in shutting down the state's largest compost facility. The board of directors of the Intervale Center voted on February 26 to take initial steps to wind down the operations of Intervale Compost Products at its current location. For the near future, Intervale Compost will continue to operate as usual, including accepting all feedstocks. The inventory of compost and soil products will continue to be sold to current and new customers.
Intervale said it will work over the next several months with the Composting Association of Vermont, the Vermont Legislature and the state administration on the issue of composting in Vermont. Should the regulatory situation change, the Intervale Center will consider halting the closure process to revisit the issue of composting at the Intervale.
A bill (H.873) that deals with the cleanup of Lake Champlain includes a provision that would exempt composting facilities from the state’s “Act 250” solid waste regulation. The provision that exempts composting facilities from Act 250, comes in the middle of controversy surrounding the state’s two largest composting operations, Vermont Compost Co., of Montpelier, and The Intervale Center, of Burlington. Both facilities have been targeted by environmental regulators over the past year. Compost supporters say composting should be encouraged, rather than thwarted by difficult regulations because they contribute to cleaning the Lake Champlain watershed.
Issues at Intervale began in September, when the facility received a Notice of Alleged Violation from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regarding
several violations alleged to have occurred at composting operation. DEC said Intervale accepted more food waste than it was allowed to, a violation that was later revoked by DEC.
Intervale also denied that it used leachate from the composting process to irrigate fields that grew food and that it discharged leachate into a river. However, DEC determined that the operation required an Act 250 permit to continue its operations. Intervale began the permitting process.
In February, however, the Intervale board decided that the regulatory process is too expensive.
“The Intervale Center can no longer afford to pay toward an uncertain and increasingly expensive permitting process for Intervale Compost," said Charles Lief, treasurer and member of the Intervale Center board of directors. "Hiring civil engineers, wetland scientists, hydrologists and other technical experts, as well as legal counsel—along with the site work required by the Agency of Natural Resources—cost the Intervale Center about $200,000 in 2007. Even more than that total would be needed to continue permitting work in 2008. Despite the fact that scientific testing to date clearly shows that Intervale Compost neither contributes to groundwater pollution nor in any way negatively impacts public health or safety, the costs are too great for the Intervale Center to support from its current revenues. Given the drain on the programs and resources of the Intervale Center as a whole, our board has taken the only responsible step for this organization going forward.”
Over the next several months, none of the steps taken to wind down Intervale Compost operations will involve the sale of equipment or removal of infrastructure. As a result, composting operations could possibly be resumed after a temporary interruption.
Intervale Center Executive Director Kit Perkins said, while the action is disappointing, it is fiscally necessary to ensure that the rest of the Intervale Center’s programs and initiatives are able to continue.
"I hope that the experience with Intervale Compost will ultimately result in an improved regulatory environment and proactive partnering on the part of state agencies to create incentives for composting and organics recycling," Perkins said. "I would like to find a way to resume composting at some scale in the Intervale.”
It is unclear whether H. 873, if it passes, would exempt Intervale from Act 250. Reports said it is unknown whether the bill would be retroactive.
Vermont Compost last month also was notified that it requires an Act 250 permit to operate. The facility, located on a farm, makes compost from poultry manure and other feedstocks. Because more than half of the feedstocks originate off-site, regulators say, the operation is commercial, not agricultural, and therefore subject to regulation. The company has produced compost for several years without a permit.
State Rep. Jon Anderson, has pushed for the compost exemption after learning of Hammer's regulatory issues, according to the Rutland Herald.
"I have been up to (Vermont Compost owner) Karl Hammer's property,” Anderson told the Herald. “I have been to the top of the compost pile. I view him as a small-business owner who is struggling. Let's stop arguing over whether Act 250 applies to composting and just say it doesn't."
An exemption for Intervale is more complicated because the organization, unlike Vermont Compost, didn’t appeal the order to get a permit and has begun the permitting process already.
Some charge that politics is involved in the new bill.
Gaye Symington, speaker of the house, is the former director of development for Intervale. David Zuckerman, a member of the House Agricultural Committee, farms on the Intervale site.
The bill amends the state’s solid waste law by exempting from the definition of solid waste “animal manure and absorbent bedding used for soil enrichment; high carbon bulking agents used in composting; or solid or dissolved materials in industrial discharges which are point sources subject to permits under the Water Pollution Control Act.”
The bill also says that on or before January 15, 2009, the agency of natural resources, after consultation with the agency of agriculture, food and markets, shall report to the house committee on fish, wildlife and water resources, the senate committee on natural resources and energy, and the house and senate committees on agriculture with recommended amendments or improvements to the existing rules governing the construction, alteration, or operation of a composting facility. The report shall include recommendations for increasing public awareness of the benefits of composting; recommendations for increasing awareness within the composting community and those interested in initiating a composting operation of the existing regulations governing composting; and the contact information of an individual or department at the agency of natural resources that can assist interested persons in understanding and complying with the agency’s regulations for composting.
Intervale Compost Products was founded in 1987 for the purpose of renewing the fertility of depleted agricultural lands in Burlington’s Intervale, and has been operating on its current site for 15 years. The Intervale Compost facility has been composting up to 30,500 wet tons of leaves, food waste, manure, and wood waste to produce 25,000 cubic yards of compost, garden soil, and compost products annually. Intervale's compost and blended soil products are sold in numerous retail centers in Vermont and the the Northeastern U.S. and are approved for use for use by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
The Intervale Center’s mission is to develop farm- and land-based enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources. Through the center’s 20 years of operation, almost 350 acres of formerly abandoned, junk-strewn agricultural land in Burlington’s Intervale have been reclaimed and put to productive agricultural and recreational use.