Monday, May 19, 2014

Lake Champlain Fish Die-Offs the New Normal, According to Biologists

Posted By on Mon, May 19, 2014 at 3:02 PM

  • Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife's Facebook page
When 22-year-old Natalie Wheating headed to her Milton lakeside cabin last weekend to open up the camp for the season, she was startled by the sight that greeted her: "Hundreds, if not thousands" of dead fish were floating along the shore of the Lake Champlain.

Her first thought? "I just thought that something was being pumped into the water," said Wheating. 

The reason for the die-off, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife, is a little less dramatic: Fisheries biologist Bernie Pientka said that mass deaths among alewives, an invasive species of herring, are normal in Lake Champlain at this time of year. Biologists believe the die-offs are a result of temperature fluctuations, food limitations and stress on the fish population following the winter season. 

"They're just not used to rapid temperature changes," said Pientka of the alewives, which first arrived in Lake Champlain in 2003. Alewives cause several problems for Lake Champlain. They outcompete native fish, such as rainbow smelt, and eat the eggs and larvae of other fish species. Alewives also cause major reproductive failure in landlocked lake trout and salmon. 

While the die-offs are "perfectly normal," Pientka said they're still worrisome for fisheries biologists. They point to the problem of invasive species in Lake Champlain, and act as a reminder of what can happen to an ecosystem put off kilter by invasive species. 

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Media Note: Did WCAX Spike a Climate Change Interview for Lack of "Opposing Views?"

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 5:04 PM

Two weeks ago, WCAX-TV producer Alexei Rubenstein invited Vermont climatologist Alan Betts to appear on the station's daily interview program, "The :30." In an email, Rubenstein asked the National Science Foundation-funded researcher "to talk about [his] climate change work and Vermont and New England implications."

Betts agreed.

But on Wednesday, just hours before Betts was slated to appear, Rubenstein canceled. In an email, the producer explained that station "higher ups" had spiked the interview due to a lack of "opposing views." In a separate phone call, Betts says, Rubenstein "said it's because management is afraid of the hostile reactions they get."

Here's Rubenstein's email:

We have to cancel today. I’ve been informed by higher ups that we need to have “opposing views” as part of the segment. I do not agree with this, but that’s the way it is. I apologize for all the trouble. If you are interested in appearing in the future with someone who has an “alternative viewpoint” maybe that would work. Please call me if you have any questions.

Betts was shocked. For 30 years, the Pittsford scientist has studied climate trends in Vermont and throughout the world. He's delivered more than 100 talks around the state and penned commentaries for the Rutland Herald, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Vermont Public Radio.

Never once, he says, has a news outlet demanded an "alternative viewpoint" to a phenomenon almost universally agreed upon by mainstream scientists.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Did Hartwell Really Say That About Climate Change?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2014 at 9:46 PM

Sen. Bob Hartwell - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Sen. Bob Hartwell
Is Sen. Bob Hartwell (D-Bennington) truly skeptical that humans are responsible for global climate change?

Does he really think the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "has come out with some pretty extreme statements about what's going on?"

Did he really suggest that what we call climate change may simply be the result of a naturally warming and cooling earth?

That's what we wrote in last week's Fair Game, quoting from a 15-minute interview conducted with Hartwell on April 7. But Hartwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, seems to think his words were distorted. After former lobbyist Bob Stannard linked to the column on his Facebook page and wrote that "Vermonters are very disappointed" with Hartwell's comments, the senator posted a four-paragraph statement clarifying his position and calling into question the column's accuracy.

"Unfortunately, some have taken to characterizing my description of the climate change situation without discussion directly with me," Hartwell wrote. "I have and will continue to express my opinion as to what I believe is best for Vermont, even when the press distorts my interviews on occasion, something that often happens to those in public life."

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Monday, April 14, 2014

GMP to Buy Neighbors' Property in Lowell Wind Settlement

Posted By on Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 11:05 AM

  • File: Kathryn Flagg
After years of drawn-out lawsuits, property disputes and heartbreak, Don and Shirley Nelson are leaving Lowell Mountain.

The neighbors of the 21-turbine Kingdom Community Wind project announced a settlement with Green Mountain Power this morning. GMP will pay $1.3 million for the Nelsons' 540-acre farm in Lowell, which has been in the Nelson family for 72 years. The Nelsons can remain in their home for up to two years and will retain 35 acres of property in Albany — but according to their statement, they intend to move to "a location well away from the turbines." The couple claims the giant  windmills have brought them grief and ill health since they were constructed three years ago.

The Nelsons couldn't be reached for comment this morning but said in a press release that they felt it was clear that the turbines "were not coming down and the effect on Lowell Mountain was irreversible." 

When Seven Days visited Lowell Mountain in 2012, Nelson spoke over the dull rush of a turbine turning in the distance — it sounded like a fast-moving river. At the time, Nelson was collecting signatures from neighbors attesting to the noise. “Some didn’t care much at first, but, boy, are they opposed now,” Nelson said. The retired dairy farmer blinked back tears, muttering, “Goddamn it," as he tried to express what the turbines had done to his wife's health and well being. 

GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said in a statement that the settlement "represents an opportunity for both to move forward, and we are pleased to have reached agreement." She also said that Kingdom Community Wind marks an important investment in renewable energy in Vermont, and that Vermonters place a high value on the energy produced at the ridgeline wind farm. Since 2012, she said, the project has generated enough electricity to power more than 24,000 homes. 

“We believe that this settlement represents an opportunity for both to move forward and we are pleased to have reached agreement.”

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In Addison County, Voters Say 'No' to Vermont Gas Pipeline

Posted By on Tue, Mar 4, 2014 at 12:50 PM

  • File: Kathryn Flagg
Last night, Addison County residents registered their opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline, loudly and clearly. The strongest rejection came from residents in Cornwall, who voted overwhelmingly — 126-16 — against Phase II of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas project, which would carry natural gas from Middlebury to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y.

But Cornwall — a hotbed of dissent against the project for months now — wasn't alone in that opinion last night. As voters there were casting paper ballots at the local elementary school, members of the energy committee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission were debating the project in Middlebury. They decided 4-1 not to endorse the pipeline, ruling that it does not comply completely with the energy section of the area's regional plan. 

Meanwhile, down the road in neighboring Shoreham, voters were considering an article similar to the non-binding measure in Cornwall. They, too, sided against the pipeline — by a margin of 66-38. 

On Tuesday, the Addison County Independent reported that the town of Monkton denounced Phase I of the pipeline project, which would run through Monkton, in a "near-unanimous voice vote."

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

EPA to Lawmakers: Lake Champlain Clean-Up a Worthy Challenge

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 10:40 AM

Vermont has a tough row to hoe if it's going to make any meaningful difference in the state of an increasingly polluted Lake Champlain. 
Brian Shupe, Lori Fisher and Chris Killian speak at a press conference on the state's proposed TMDL plan on Wednesday afternoon. - PHOTO BY PAUL HEINTZ
  • Photo by Paul Heintz
  • Brian Shupe, Lori Fisher and Chris Killian speak at a press conference on the state's proposed TMDL plan on Wednesday afternoon.

That was the word at the Statehouse Wednesday when Stephen Perkins, with the office of ecosystem protection in the federal Environmental Protection Agency, testified before lawmakers from nine different legislative committees. The legislators had gathered in a packed meeting room to hear the latest developments in a years-long effort to rewrite regulations aimed at reducing phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain. 

Perkins had good news and bad news to share. The bad? Even if the state went "full bore" on its plan to clean up Lake Champlain, there are two sections — the Missisquoi Bay, and a section of the south lake — which would still see phosphorous levels deemed too high for healthy water.

The good news? "In those remaining segments there's a prayer of getting there," Perkins said — but only if Vermont is aggressive in its approach to improving water quality in the years ahead.

The EPA says Vermont needs to cut the amount of phosphorous it is dumping into Lake Champlain by 36 percent. 
It's been three years since the EPA revoked Vermont's former "TMDL" — or Total Maximum Daily Load — a technical standard for how much phosphorous the lake can safely absorb. The EPA stepped in to rewrite the TMDL and officials from the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture collaborated with EPA on a plan to meet those goals.  But now the EPA is pressing Vermont — hard — for more specifics on how it will meet the new target. 

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rural Vermont: Farmers Sold 53,000 Gallons of Raw Milk

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 3:12 PM


As some farmers push for more freedom to sell raw milk, an  advocacy group reports that nearly 2,000 customers bought more than 53,000 gallons of the unpasteurized product in a recent 12-month period. 

For those of you interested in following the raw milk debate, head over to the website of Rural Vermont, which  released its annual raw milk report Wednesday morning. Because Vermont doesn't require farmers selling raw milk to register with the state, the Rural Vermont report is the best snapshot we have of what raw milk sales look like on the ground.

To recap, raw milk is unpasteurized. In Vermont, it's sold directly by farmers to consumers, and in almost all cases consumers have to travel to the farm to purchase this milk. Vermont passed regulations in 2009 covering the sale of raw milk, setting out guidelines for farmers intended to protect public health. People who love raw milk really love raw milk — but conversely, public health officials stand firm in their conviction that consuming unpasteurized milk (which hasn't been treated to kill off pathogens and bacteria) could make people sick.

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

J. Craig Venter, Pioneering Genome Scientist, to Speak at Norwich University

Posted By on Sat, Feb 1, 2014 at 4:03 PM

2011 photo of J. Craig Venter from Wikimedia Commons

For J. Craig Venter, the sky isn't the limit, but Mars might be. The 67-year-old biologist and entrepeneur first mapped the human genome in the late 1990s using a technique he invented and called "shotgun sequencing." A decade later, in 2010, one of his organizations, Synthetic Genomics, became the first to develop "synthetic life," essentially fabricating a strand of DNA that contained the entire genome of a bacteria cell. 

Now, as Venter writes about in his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, his organization is researching potential applications for the fledgling field of synthetic biology. They range from straightforward to totally outlandish: crafting better vaccines or more efficient sources of nutrition; cleaning water and air; and equipping NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover with DNA-sequencing techology that could digitally map Martian genomes and beam them back to Earth for re-creation in labs. 

It wouldn't be the first time Venter has looked beyond Earth to solve our scientific riddles. For the last six years, he and other scientists have crisscrossed 80,000 miles of sea in his private yacht, the Sorcerer II. That project, known as the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species of microbes, as well as millions of genetic base pairs and a couple thousand new families of proteins.

Venter will speak about his new book at Norwich University on Monday, February 3 (details below). In advance of that lecture, we spoke with him by phone about a few of his accomplishments, as well the state of science in the U.S.

SEVEN DAYS: Since developing the first synthetic cell in 2010, you’ve said that a “vision is being borne out” for how this technology can help us create better vaccines, biofuels, cleaner water, more abundant sources of food, etc. Where do you see that vision being borne out now, and what are some developments we could feasibly see in the next five years?


J. CRAIG VENTER: Well, those are all areas that we’re actively working in at Synthetic Genomics, and it’s not clear yet where the fastest applications will be. But I think the vaccine area might be one of them, certainly based on immediate needs. New flu strains are emerging in China and other places, and the number of deaths from flu are starting to mount in the U.S., so I think it’s all very critical for new developments.


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Friday, January 31, 2014

Cornwall Board Takes Aim at Vermont Gas Pipeline

Posted By on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 7:37 AM


The town of Cornwall is calling on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission to fight a proposed natural gas pipeline that, if constructed, would carry gas underground from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y. 

The Public Service Board approved "Phase One" of the Addison Natural Gas Project, which regional planners endorsed, in late December; that leg will bring gas south from Chittenden County to Middlebury. Vermont Gas — a subsidiary of GazMetro — filed plans requesting approval for "Phase Two" with the PSB in November. The second leg would jog southwest, through Cornwall, Shoreham, and then under Lake Champlain to its terminus: the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. 

In her letter this week to the regional planners, Cornwall selectboard member Judy Watts points to two provisions in the regional plan which she argues provide "specific and unambiguous" reasons for rejecting the Phase II project. The plan states that energy infrastructure and services should not "cause undue adverse impact to the health and safety of residents or on the environmental quality of the Addison Region," and that no large energy generation or transmission facilities should be constructed in the region "which have as their primary purpose providing energy markets outside the Addison Region." The letter is signed by all five members of the Cornwall selectboard. 

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Senate Committee Advances Shoreland Protection Rules

Posted By on Tue, Jan 28, 2014 at 9:37 AM


After striking some compromises between environmentalists and property rights advocates, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously approved legislation on Friday that would tighten the rules governing shoreland development in Vermont. The bill is scheduled to come before the full Senate next week.

Big picture? The proposed rules are designed to improve water quality by limiting clearing and development on the very edges of Vermont's lakes and ponds; keeping shorelands more intact would prevent runoff and maintain critical habitat at the water's edge. Vermont passed some shoreland development rules in the 1970s, but they expired a few years later and were not reinstated. Today, according to the Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont is the only northeastern state without a statewide lakeshore protection rule on the books.

That may be about to change.

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