MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Thursday passed a bill aimed at opening state environmental enforcement actions to more involvement by citizens aggrieved by polluters.
The Senate's action on a voice vote Thursday came on a bill already passed by the House that brings the state into compliance with requirements in federal environmental laws that the public be allowed to have a say in enforcement actions, backers of the measure said.
H. Curtis Spalding, New England regional administrator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, wrote to the state's top environmental official on Dec. 15 to say "Vermont's existing laws do not provide for sufficient public participation in administrative and judicial enforcement" as required by federal law.
Lawyers from the Vermont Law School and the environmental group Conservation Law Foundation have been petitioning the EPA since 2008 to have that agency withdraw its approval of the state Agency of Natural Resources as the enforcer within Vermont of federal clean air, clean water and hazardous waste laws.
One of the key problems was the inability of citizens to speak out as the state was preparing to issue penalties or corrective action orders to polluters, said Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer with CLF.
"Historically, the process in Vermont was very closed off to citizens," Iarrapino said in an interview. The bill passed by lawmakers "gives the public the opportunity to comment on whether the enforcement action protects people's health" and property rights, he added.
Iarrapino said enhancing citizen involvement would serve as a check on politically well-connected companies being subject to light enforcement. A few years ago, CLF tried to protest what it saw as kid-glove treatment of several alleged environmental violations at the Jay Peak ski area, Iarrapino said. "The agency at the time just blew us off."
The bill passed Thursday sets up a new system under which the environmental agency or board issuing an enforcement action must post a draft of it on its website for 30 days, during which the public can comment. After considering any comments, the agency or board issues a final enforcement order.
Anyone who filed a comment during the 30-day period then has 14 more days to file a petition with the environmental division of the Vermont Superior Courts to appear and contest the order.
The Senate made minor changes in the bill in which the House is expected to concur. The administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the measure, said Christopher Recchia, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
"We're very pleased the Senate worked cooperatively to improve the bill," Recchia said. "We're very confident it meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the other federal programs."