Questions raised about political pressure that led compost operation to close

03/14/08 4:50PM By John Dillon

(Host) The state’s largest composting operation plans to shut down soon.

The facility is located on a flood plain of the Winooski River in Burlington known as the Intervale.

But the non-profit Intervale Center says it can’t afford to meet new regulatory hurdles for the compost operation, which handles 20,000 tons a year of organic waste.

Now questions are being raised about the political pressure on the Intervale that led to the decision to close.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The compost operation faces a number of legal hurdles. It requires a new solid waste permit. It also needs an Act 250 land use permit that could involve hundreds of thousands of dollars for archeological studies on Native American use of the land.

Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington has worked at the Intervale Center as a fundraiser. And Progressive Representative David Zuckerman runs a farm there.

But the Douglas Administration says it has been very sensitive to keep politics out of environmental enforcement at the Intervale. Governor Jim Douglas said enforcement isn’t even being handled by his administration now.

(Douglas)``And now the Attorney General has assumed responsibility for enforcing it. And if the Attorney General believes it’s something that ought to be pursued, I certainly respect his judgment.’’

(Dillon) Intervale officials say they’ve tried to work out the various legal issues with the state. But there are questions about how flexible the state has been – and whether politics are involved.

On the Green Mountain Daily blog it was stated recently that Agency of Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie told the Intervale that he had the center in a -- quote -- “noose.” For some at the meeting, the meaning was clear: Crombie was going to tighten the regulatory vise on the compost center.

Intervale Director Kit Perkins was there.

(Perkins) ``It was upsetting. But I certainly didn’t get it out publicly. This is not my initiative here. But I will tell the truth and say yes that was said at the meeting.’’

(Dillon) Crombie has said publicly that the Intervale is the wrong place for a composting operation.

But Crombie said he did not use the word noose to describe his agency’s hold on the Intervale.

(Crombie) ``No. No. I would not do that.’’

(Dillon) Perkins said she said heard Crombie say it. She said she was hoping to work with the state on resolving the environmental and archaeological concerns.

(Perkins) ``I wanted there to be, and I expect that from any government for there to be, partnership with local businesses, especially green businesses. And so that was just an indication that maybe there was something going on that I wasn’t aware of.’’

(Dillon) Tom Moreau is the general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District. He was at the meeting between Intervale officials and Secretary Crombie. Moreau didn’t want to characterize the meeting.

(Moreau) ``If I get asked by anybody in authority, his boss, somebody from the attorney general’s office, I will tell the truth. And it will be very clear what I heard.’’

(Dillon) Moreau said he’s been dealing with state regulators for 30 years. He said this case is different.

(Moreau) ``I’ve seen less cooperation on this than I have on most every other environmental problem than I’ve been associated. And I don’t know the reason for that. I’m just not going to speculate. I just don’t know the reasoning for it.’’

(Dillon) And the politics of composting don’t end here. They extend to the Legislature, where there’s a bill pending that would exempt compost operations from land-use regulations.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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