Vermont Intervale scrutinized by Native commission, others

Written by Jedd Kettler

Burlington, Vermont (County Courier)
September 2007

A non-profit organization touted for its stewardship is now facing numerous questions from State agencies and the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs about both environmental practices, failure to obtain an Act 250 permit, and potential harm to Abenaki historical and cultural resources.

In early August, Intervale Compost Products (ICP), located in Burlington along the Winooski River, was told by the State to adjust and limit its operation in order to protect significant Abenaki archaeological resources on the site. The same Vermont Environmental Court ruling also ordered them to stop pumping the contents of collection ponds onto nearby fields.

ICP also still faces potential penalties and enforcement action from both the Agency of Natural Resources and the Act 250 Natural Resources Board, according to attorneys with both agencies. One of these enforcement questions stems from ICP’s operation without a required Act 250 permit for much, if not all, of its 20-year history.

ANR concerns
Potential ANR penalties stem largely from changes in practices and the size of the compost operation.

In addition to considering solid waste re-certification for the large composting operation, ANR General Counsel Warren Coleman said they are looking at “what we believe were a number of violations.” Staff is working to assess these questions thoroughly before moving further, though, he said. “We want to make sure ... I’m working with several other attorneys to sort through that, as we would with any enforcement case,” Coleman said.

These concerns focus on reports of activity on the site, as well as changes and expansions to ICP’s operations – pumping ponds, digging new ones, and growth in wet materials coming into the facility - which might have required ANR oversight under their pre-existing solid waste certification. “In general, changes in operations that are not spelled out in the certification or have prior approval .... certainly should get sign-off from us before changes are made,” Coleman said. He added that “there may be some honest disagreement” about these practices and what changes are needed prior to approval. ANR also ordered tests of the liquid in several of ICP’s collection ponds and an underground liquid leachate tank.

Those results were expected to be released this week. On Wednesday, Coleman said that these test results have now been certified, but are not yet being released “because they are part of an enforcement case.”

A need for permitting
Following an opinion sent in January, a final jurisdictional opinion from the District 4 Environmental Commission office in May reconfirmed the need for Act 250 permitting. “There might be enforcement action ... for the fact that they never got the permit. We haven’t settled on that yet,” said Vermont Natural Resources Board General Counsel John Hasen. In this case, the need for Act 250 permitting also opened up consideration of concern over Abenaki archaeological resources on the site. “Any time somebody builds without a permit, we’re concerned. How bad the situation is depends on what’s being done, what’s been done and what the site is ... I know the Division for Historic Preservation is very concerned about this particular site,” Hasen said.

The same May jurisdictional opinion also granted authority to the Division for Historic Preservation to address archaeological concerns on the site, followed by an Aug. 7 Environmental Court order limiting operations to several main lots and stopping any ground disturbance.

Kevin Dorn, the Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which oversees the Division for Historic Preservation, said their goal is to preserve state history on the site. “Our state archaeologist and our field archaeologists believe there are some very important resources that are either there now or were there,” Dorn said. “These could be some of the more important and sensitive archeological resources in the state. So our staff believes them to be quite important to telling the history of the state.”

Activity on the compost site - including digging ponds and other excavation, scraping, grading, construction, and operation of heavy equipment that can compact soil and destroy what lies hidden beneath - all cause concern, according to agency and division officials. “What we are really hoping to accomplish is protecting the resources that still exist there. We believe that some of the resources have been utterly destroyed. We believe that there are still resources there,” Dorn said. “Once the door was opened for us, we moved very quickly to come up with a plan.”

Native concerns
Members of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs became involved early on, raising both archaeological and environmental concerns in the Intervale after the commission first met a year ago.

Judy Dow, a VCNAA commissioner with strong family roots in the Intervale area, said the commission is pleased with the cooperation of the various agencies and divisions to address concerns in the ICP.

“I’ve been frustrated by how slow the wheels turn, but I’ve been happy that they’ve communicated, and that they are moving forward,” Dow said. “It’s been encouraging these last couple of months to see all the agencies working together.”

VCNAA Chairman Mark Mitchell said concerns include both the potential harm to historical Abenaki resources and the environmental practices on the composting site. “That they just don’t understand the permit process in Vermont, I find amazing,” Mitchell said. “It’s a highly good, motivated group of people,” Mitchell said, adding that he fears “The Intervale Center has just lost focus on what being a good steward is.”

ICP reacts
ICP Manager Holly Taylor said the compost center did not intentionally avoid Act 250 permitting or oversight from ANR. “We’ve never tried to get out of a permit that we need. We’ve always done right by the environment, and trying to do all best management practices. Be a good neighbor and be an important asset to our community,” Taylor said.

ICP is now working to prepare an Act 250 application and complete ANR solid waste re-certification.

Taylor said limitations on the operation from the stipulated order have not been a hardship for ICP.

“Our range of motion is a little constricted, but thankfully we’ve worked with DHP ... so it really hasn’t hampered our activities at all,” Taylor said. “We’re pretty nimble here. We can adjust pretty quickly, and we’ve got a great staff.”

Taylor said archaeological and cultural resources on the site are just as important to them as environmental and other concerns. “Intervale Center is a steward of the Intervale in its whole. We want to protect all the resources in the Intervale. We value all the resources in the Intervale, whether it’s recreational, agricultural, sustainable resource management, waste management, or archaeological. So we take it very seriously, all of the resources down here,” Taylor said. “I hope that all of the resources ... can be compatible.”

Dorn emphasized that Agency of Commerce and DHP goals have never been about stopping ICP operations. Despite the level of concern on the site, Dorn emphasized that DHP and his agency’s goal has never been to stop operations. “It’s a commercial enterprise ... but there also is the need to protect the resource. What we’re trying to find is that balance ... It’s a fine needle to thread,” Dorn said.