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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

University of Vermont Announces Plan to Divest From Fossil Fuels

Posted By on Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 5:34 PM

The University of Vermont campus - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • The University of Vermont campus
After years of pressure from students and activists, the University of Vermont has announced plans to phase out investments in fossil fuel companies.

UVM's board of trustees on Tuesday endorsed a plan that will prevent any new fossil fuel investments and require the university to cease any existing commitments in the coming years. At a press conference following the vote, president Suresh Garimella said the decision "marked an important milestone" in the university's long-standing leadership on environmental issues.

"By voting today to divest the university's endowment of fossil fuel investments, we're extending a tradition of significant and decisive steps the university has taken that set UVM apart," Garimella said.

Fossil fuel companies comprise about 6.7 percent of UVM's $536 million endowment portfolio, including direct, commingled and private investments.
Student activists have repeatedly argued that UVM's financial support of the worst contributors to climate change undermines its commitment to sustainability.

But trustees have resisted the demands and rejected several proposals over the years on the argument that divestment would limit the endowment's potential growth and jeopardize the university's financial future. 

“Our primary responsibility is to protect the endowment,” David Daigle, a former border member, said in 2013 when the board shot down a divestment proposal, the Burlington Free Press reported. "My continuing fear is that this proposal would have a significant impact on the ability to balance the risks and rewards within the endowment by cutting out a substantial portion of the economy.”

The university has defended its investment portfolio by highlighting other sustainable efforts, such as its Clean Energy Fund, which campus leaders say has contributed more than $1.5 million in dozens of green campus projects. 

But critics weren't satisfied. Last year, student activists formed a group called Organize UVM that has continued to demand the university divest, bringing more than 100 people out to a January board meeting.

In response, UVM trustees created the Sustainability Work Group to explore the concept further. The group met four times since March and received more than 420 public comment submissions prior to adopting its recommendations, which the trustees approved on Tuesday. 

As part of the pledge, the university will immediately end new direct investments in fossil fuels, fully divest from any public fossil fuel investments by July 2023 and allow any pre-existing, multi-year private investments to lapse. UVM stopped acquiring the latter in 2017, and trustee Ron Lumbra estimated the final commitment should expire by the end of the decade, though  the vast majority of investments will be ended within the next three years.

The board will also ask fund managers to "factor the financial risks of climate change into their investment decision-making process," according to a press release.

UVM joins three other Vermont colleges — Goddard, Sterling and Middlebury — that have committed to divestment, a step taken by more than 1,000 organizations worldwide, according to gofossilfree.org.

At his press conference, Garimella commended students for their continued advocacy. "I'm really proud of the way they approached this issue in a constructive — and therefore, I think, effective — fashion," Garimella said.

Lumbra agreed. "The board appreciates all the research they conducted and their sincere effort to understand the full complexity of the issue," he said.

At the same time, the trustee acknowledged that financial considerations factored heavily into the decision. He said the long-term outlook of fossil fuel stocks have become bleak due in part to the rise of the green economy, which has in turn offered new and profitable ways to invest in sustainable companies.

"The world's changed," Lumbra said. "The opportunity for us to divest now, and do it in the right way, and keep the mission of the university focused on the environment, all came together at this time." 

Organize UVM noted the board's vote in an Instagram post that praised the efforts of both current and former students.

"This could not have happened without each and every 3k+ of you who signed our petition, came to a board meeting, a regular meeting, posted, emailed a board member, or showed your support in any way," reads the post. "It also would not have happened without the 10+ years of fossil fuel divestment movements before this one."

Noting that UVM remains "far from perfect," the group vowed to continue its efforts.

"But for now, we celebrate," the group wrote. "Thank you all for fighting to protect our planet!"

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Act 250 Reforms Advance in the Vermont Senate Despite Objections

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2020 at 7:40 PM

  • File: Tim Newcomb
A bill meant to encourage the construction of affordable downtown housing advanced in the Vermont Senate on Thursday despite concerns that proposed changes to the state’s landmark land use law, Act 250, have been hastily drafted.

The Senate sidestepped the acrimony that flared a day earlier when two senators blasted the process that shaped the bill.

Sen. John Rodgers (D- Essex/Orleans) took issue on Wednesday with the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee's work, noting that neither he nor Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), both members of the committee, had been able to vote on an amendment earlier this week due to telecommunications difficulties.

The residents of his rural district are frustrated about their inability to participate in online legislative hearings, especially on bills of such consequence, Rodgers said.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Contamination From Vermont National Guard Base Is Reaching the Winooski River

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 5:17 PM

John Belter looking at a brook on his farm that has been found to be contaminated - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • John Belter looking at a brook on his farm that has been found to be contaminated
Toxic chemicals from the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington have not only polluted nearby wells but are reaching the Winooski River and its tributaries.

That’s the takeaway of a new report on just how extensively the contamination has spread beyond the base, according to state officials.

“It’s a large plume. In some places, it’s probably over a mile long,” said Richard Spiese, a hazardous site manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “And it goes from the source area all the way to the Winooski River.”

Multiple tributaries running from the base — located on the north side of the Burlington International Airport runway — are contaminated with PFAS, the same perfluorinated chemicals used to make products such as Teflon cookware and waterproof clothing. The chemicals, which were discovered in 2016 in wells around the former ChemFab factory in North Bennington, were also used in firefighting foam on the base and at airports around the nation.

Their durability has earned PFAS the moniker "forever chemicals," and communities, airports and municipal water systems are spending billions to understand and clean up the contamination.

Last year, Seven Days reported how PFAS chemicals have contaminated a well at the Belter dairy farm just north of the base. The well had been used by John Belter’s family to water his 400 cows for decades, and after the discovery, the state paid for a filtration system.

But additional testing was needed to better understand the extent of the contamination, including in creeks and rivers. Now that report – a 991-page volume released by the Air Guard recently — clearly shows that the chemicals have migrated off the base and into groundwater, creeks and the Winooski itself, Spiese said.

Proving the base is the source of the contamination may take additional time, but the connection it makes is very strong, he said.

“I think the data is there to show that PFAS from the base is what is impacting the Belter well,” Spiese said.

Belter was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Spiese noted that the Guard has been cooperative and has been performing the costly, detailed studies needed.

The report, by the Virginia-based engineering firm Parsons, states that the “data indicates an exposure pathway exists” between the base and the river. Regarding the well, however, the report merely states that such a pathway “may be complete.” The report says additional study is needed to confirm that, and other sources may also be responsible.

While he has yet to finish his analysis of the report, Spiese likened that last claim to an obviously guilty defendant pleading not guilty at the start of a legal process process.

“It’s all part of the game, and we’ll get them to admit it one way or another eventually, even if they don’t come out and say it,” he said.

He noted that Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics is spending $60 million to clean up the groundwater contamination around its plant in North Bennington, but it has yet to admit responsibility.

In a press release, the Guard acknowledged the findings and stressed that drinking water in the area is safe, noting the businesses and homes are served by the Champlain Water District, whose water supply has not been affected.

"This has been a very thorough process to determine potential impacts from the use of PFAS on our base, and I am encouraged that we can now move toward the next phase of this critically important work." said Col. Adam Rice, 158th Fighter Wing vice commander. "We take this issue very seriously and want to reassure our employees and the community that drinking water has not been impacted, and there is no threat to human health."

Spiese agrees that human health is not immediately at risk unless someone were to catch and eat fish from the small tributaries most affected, which he notes is unlikely. 

There is no PFAS limit for surface waters in Vermont yet, but the drinking water standard is 20 parts per trillion for the five compounds regulated by the state. One of the tributaries tested at 10,619 parts per trillion — 500 times the drinking water limit. 
The numbers in red indicate contamination levels that exceed state drinking water standards. - PARSONS
  • Parsons
  • The numbers in red indicate contamination levels that exceed state drinking water standards.

Once the contaminated water reaches the Winooski, however, it is quickly diluted. Tests in the Winooski downstream from the tributaries of concern showed levels below 10 parts per trillion, just slightly higher than the levels detected in the river above the base.

Spiese said he was “relieved” that numbers in the Winooski itself are so low, and he doubts that the state will respond by issuing an order not to eat fish from the river. That remains an option, however.

More study is needed to come up with a remediation plan, a process that could take years. The base already operates a trench system that captures some of the water running off the most contaminated area, pumps it back uphill and treats it.

That location — which has produced water samples nearing 50,000 parts per trillion, or 2,500 times the state standard  — is where firefighters for decades set all manner of things ablaze and practiced putting them out with the PFAS-laden foam. The base has since switched to a less toxic foam.

Future cleanup could involve removing and disposing the most contaminated soil. Contaminated soil can also sometimes be kept in place by installing underground curtains and capping the area to keep water from leaching through. Other technologies might be able to bind the contamination to the soil so it doesn’t seep out, Spiese said.

“It will be challenging; it will be very expensive. But that’s not to say it’s impossible,” he said.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Potential 'Exposure' to COVID-19 Forces CSWD to Shut Drop-Off Sites

Posted By on Fri, Mar 27, 2020 at 1:26 PM

Ethan Hausman greeted people as they arrived to drop off trash. - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • Ethan Hausman greeted people as they arrived to drop off trash.
The Chittenden Solid Waste District has closed all but one of its drop-off centers after the district had some staff members self-quarantine because they were potentially exposed to coronavirus, according to a spokesperson.

No staff member has tested positive for coronavirus, but some are off the job and home in self-quarantine awaiting test results, spokesperson Alise Certa said Thursday.

The resulting staff shortage forced the closure of five drop-off centers. The Environmental Depot hazardous waste facility is also closed. Only the Williston drop-off center, on Redmond Road, remains open.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Senate Supports 10-Year Extension for Biomass Plant

Posted By on Wed, Mar 11, 2020 at 8:47 PM

The Senate Finance Committee - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • The Senate Finance Committee

A biomass energy plant in northeastern Vermont would get a 10-year lease on life under a bill moving through the state Senate, despite concerns about the plant’s efficiency and carbon emissions.

The 20-megawatt facility in rural Ryegate burns 250,000 tons of wood chips per year from trees in Vermont and New Hampshire forests. Utilities in Vermont are required to purchase its electricity at highly subsidized rates.

But that long-term power contract with the state is up in 2022. Lawmakers are seeking to ensure that the plant — which employs 20 people and pumps $7 million annually into the local forest products industry — can continue to operate for at least another decade.

The plant enjoys about $5 million annually in rate subsidies, which equals $50 million over the life of the current contract, according to the Department of Public Service. Biomass plants in New Hampshire have shuttered in recent years after subsidies were revoked and the plants couldn't compete with cheaper energy sources.

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Friday, February 21, 2020

Deal to Streamline Act 250 Collapses in House Committee

Posted By on Fri, Feb 21, 2020 at 4:50 PM

Attorney Brooke Dingledine addressing the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee - FILE: KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • File: Kevin McCallum
  • Attorney Brooke Dingledine addressing the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee
A plan to streamline Act 250 review of development projects in Vermont fell apart Friday after lawmakers refused to fund a new statewide natural resources board to review major projects.

The powerful House Ways and Means Committee stripped from a bill proposed fee increases meant to pay an estimated $600,000 annually for a centralized, professional review board that would have taken over many responsibilities of volunteer local review panels.

“I don’t think the new professional board is a good idea,” said Janet Ancel (D-Calais), chair of the committee. “I think it's overly expensive, I think it will reduce access to the process, and I think it will result in more lawyering up.”

Even members of the House committee that voted last week in favor of the proposal seemed content to let it collapse.

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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Vermont House Approves a Key Climate Bill

Posted By on Thu, Feb 20, 2020 at 8:13 PM

Thomas Ely, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, speaking in support of the Global Warming Solutions Act - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Thomas Ely, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, speaking in support of the Global Warming Solutions Act
A sweeping climate change bill meant to force Vermont to hit its ambitious emission-reduction targets or else face lawsuits from citizens won preliminary approval in the House by a wide margin Thursday.

Legislators favored the Global Warming Solutions Act by a vote of 105 to 37 — a strong showing for a bill that Republican Gov. Phil Scott has warned would put the state in unnecessary legal jeopardy.

Supporters praised H.688 as leverage to ensure that the state meets emission-reduction targets that it has missed for years.

“(The bill) creates a strong and effective path to cut pollution and will increase climate resilience for all of our communities,” said Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Cost of Boosting Renewable Energy Mandate Gives Senators Pause

Posted By on Wed, Feb 19, 2020 at 4:56 PM

Developer Joe Larkin at a South Burlington solar farm - FILE: ROBERT NICKELSBERG
  • File: Robert Nickelsberg
  • Developer Joe Larkin at a South Burlington solar farm
A plan to speed up Vermont’s adoption of renewable energy is hitting headwinds over concerns about potentially enormous costs.

Senators seem to support a bill that would require electric utilities to get all of their power from renewable sources by 2030. The state’s renewable energy standard already calls for them to reach 75 percent renewable by 2032. So the new benchmark seemed manageable to members of the Senate Finance Committee.

But the bill’s call to double — from 10 percent to 20 percent — the amount of renewable energy that utilities would have to purchase from new Vermont sources like solar seemed to be a bridge too far for some senators.

Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), who chairs the committee, cautioned members that the requirement was causing some utilities — and her — concern over potential cost hikes.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Divided House Committee Signs Off on Compromise Act 250 Bill

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2020 at 8:09 PM

House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee members preparing to vote on proposed Act 250 changes - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee members preparing to vote on proposed Act 250 changes
A sharply divided House committee agreed to a series of sweeping changes to Vermont’s landmark land-use law Thursday, including a controversial provision that would limit the power of volunteer district commissions.

The 94-page draft bill still has a long way to go to become law. But its approval by the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee marked a significant milestone in the nearly two-year-long effort to modernize Act 250.

Even the bill’s supporters, however, acknowledged that changes to the 50-year-old law represent a compromise that won’t please everyone.

“I would do this a different way, but it’s politics. It’s the art of the possible,” said committee chair Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury). “We have to make compromises that meet people’s needs, and that’s what we’ve done.”

She was referring largely to the decision to strip the nine volunteer district commissions of their ability to decide the fate of complex projects.

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Monday, January 20, 2020

VPIRG to Support Candidates Who Will Fight Climate Crisis

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2020 at 10:13 PM

Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns
Vermont’s largest environmental advocacy organization announced plans to begin directly backing candidates for state office for the first time, a major shift from its past position of political neutrality.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group announced Saturday that it would form a separate nonprofit entity called VPIRG Votes to back candidates who share its members' concerns about the climate crisis.

“We’re getting off the sidelines,” VPIRG executive director Paul Burns said Monday in an interview with Seven Days. “The board just felt that we were no longer doing the best service for our members by voluntarily sitting out the [electoral] process.”

That’s a departure for a nonprofit organization founded in 1972 that has limited itself to lobbying lawmakers on consumer and environmental issues important to its 50,000 members, such as reducing water pollution, shifting to renewable energy and encouraging open government.

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