Vermont Takes Action on Nitrogen Pollution

New law underlines the need for a comprehensive Long Island Sound diet.

Vermont has just passed a strong law controlling pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus. The story from Vermont Public Radio can be heard here, including an interview with me, as CFE/Save the Sound’s legal director.

The Long Island Sound watershed covers more than 16,000 square miles in six states.
The Long Island Sound watershed covers more than 16,000 square miles in six states. (Map: LISS)

How does a new law in Vermont affect the health of the Sound, hundreds of miles away? Nitrogen discharged from Vermont into the Connecticut River runs through Massachusetts and Connecticut and eventually contributes about 7 percent of the total nitrogen load to Long Island Sound. If we focus specifically on nitrogen pollution from agriculture and roads runoff, Vermont contributes about 19 percent. So we are happy that Vermont is taking steps to address this problem by passing H.35. Because the law addresses phosphorus as well, it will also have substantial benefits to water quality in Vermont’s freshwater lakes and streams that are more impacted by that nutrient.

We hope federal regulators and state regulators in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts will follow Vermont’s example. While Connecticut and New York made some modest but meaningful steps from 2000 to 2014, these measures were always based on the easiest, most cost-effective reductions. We’ve always known those measures would not get the job done on their own.

Already this summer, we have seen over 100 turtles die from poison algae (induced by nitrogen) and tens of thousands of menhaden die in the Peconic Bay from a low oxygen zone (also induced by excess nitrogen). So it is clear, the problem is not solved and is getting worse. Much more needs to be done.

Disasters like these are why we have filed a petition with EPA and the five Long Island Sound watershed states asking for an enforceable nitrogen diet for the Sound. This means they would need to determine how much nitrogen the Sound can handle and create a comprehensive, time-limited enforceable plan for nitrogen reductions to achieve this. We hope the regulators will act swiftly, as a comprehensive plan is the best way to proceed. If not, our option is to begin bringing direct legal actions against sources that contribute too much nitrogen to the Sound.

We hope that the positive actions of Vermont, a state hundreds of miles from the Sound, will spur the regulators in throughout the watershed. Without a larger plan it will be radically insufficient. There is a problem called the “tragedy of the commons” where actions by individuals, like reducing pollution, will cost those individuals but will have no benefit unless most or all others do the same. The way around this is to decide on a joint course of action and create enforceable mechanisms to achieve it. The turtle and menhaden crises underline what was already clear to us and many who care about the Sound: the time for a meaningful, enforceable plan to put Long Island Sound on a nitrogen diet is now.

Posted by Roger Reynolds, legal director for Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
Cover photo: The Connecticut River from Putney, VT. Creative Commons Photo/Flickr user putneypics

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