Wednesday April 13, 2011

MONTPELIER (AP) -- A bill that would give Vermont residents more of a say in the enforcement of state and federal environmental laws was passed by the state House on Wednesday and was sent to the Senate.

The bill, which passed the House on a 109-25 vote, is designed to address a complaint by some environmentalists that enforcement penalties are negotiated behind closed doors by the state and polluters and that affected citizens haven’t had a chance to weigh in on whether the penalties and remedies are sufficient.

It also is designed to bring the state into compliance with federal law. The Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the state two years ago to say that it was falling short on allowing public participation in environmental enforcement proceedings and that a remedy it had proposed then was insufficient.

The bill says that when the Agency of Natural Resources is about to complete an enforcement action, it will give public notice of that. Someone who wants to challenge the outcome has 30 days to raise an objection with the agency, which can be done by email. If the concern is unresolved at the end of that period, the person has 14 days to petition the Vermont Environmental Court for a hearing.

After the bill passed, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, hailed what he called "tripartisan support for the notion that people who are aggrieved by violations of environmental laws get the chance to participate in enforcement proceedings."

Gary Kessler, director of compliance and enforcement for the Agency of Natural Resources, said sometimes citizens who want to get involved care less about the size of a fine a violator might face than about what measures will be taken to correct a problem. A neighbor could weigh in on whether steps proposed by a violator to fix a damaged wetland were sufficient, for example.

But during debate on the House floor, minority Republicans raised the specter of one neighbor using the new right to be involved merely to harass another. They also argued that the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that was a key supporter of the bill, would use it to recruit the neighbors of violators as members.

Rep. Rebecca Ellis, D-Waterbury, cited remarks made to lawmakers by Vermont Supreme Court Justice Brian Burgess earlier this year about how the judiciary stood for the citizens’ "right to be heard," and she argued that the bill about to be voted on enhanced that right.

That drew a retort from Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport, who said Burgess was talking about parties to a lawsuit.

"He was talking about the rights of litigants to be heard, not the neighbor who doesn’t like you, not the Conservation Law Foundation," Kilmartin said.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, offered an amendment that would have barred a group such as CLF from becoming involved in the case unless the aggrieved person was already a member of the group at the time of the violation. Koch said that was aimed at preventing environmental groups from "victim shopping."

But the amendment was defeated after the bill’s backers pointed out that some groups form after an environmental violation. Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier and chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, pointed to the Cabot Creamery’s 2005 ammonia spill into the Winooski River, which prompted neighbors to form a group to monitor its environmental practices.