The state is investigating an Addison County farm for violating water quality regulations after it spread manure last month that flowed directly into tributaries of Lake Champlain. The case is among several farm pollution cases now under investigation by the state.
This latest investigation was prompted by the farm's neighbor, who videotaped the extensive runoff.
Eben Markowski grew up in Addison County, in the heart of Vermont dairy country. He said you didn’t need a weather forecaster to know that the bright sun and warm temperatures on March 14 would melt the snow that covered the fields near his house in Panton.
But he didn’t expect to see the field covered with a lake of liquid manure. He documented the scene in short videos.
“You can see right there, manure was spread yesterday on top of the snow,” Markowski said in one video that he took. "It's all melting now in the hot sun."
Markwoski then pointed his camera at a brown stream that ran under a road culvert, and then toward Lake Champlain less than a mile away.
“All of that manure, flushed into this water, running under the road in this current right here,” he said.
WATCH — Another video Markowski took on March 14 in Addison County:
State regulations ban spreading manure after Dec. 15 and before April 1 precisely because wet fields and melting snow can cause pollution to runoff into waterways.
Farmers also don't like to waste valuable fertilizer, so there's little incentive to spread manure in the winter unless they have no place to put it. But that was apparently the case in Panton, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture gave the farm an emergency exemption because their manure pit was close to overflowing.
However, Laura DiPietro, director water quality at the Agency of Natural Resources, said something clearly went wrong since no manure is allowed to enter waterways.
“One of the things that comes with any exemption that we issue is you still, no matter what, cannot have any manure runoff into water,” DiPietro said. “And so, that's an actionable item [for state enforcement]. And that is certainly a part – based on seeing this video and us doing our site investigation – of why this case is under investigation and has been referred to the Agency of Natural Resources.”
Claudia Allen and her son Joe own the Allendale Farm that spread the manure. In an interview, Claudia Allen said she did not know there was a problem and that she has not been contacted by the state.
“It was cold, and then we had that 60-degree day,” she said. “But I don’t know, we haven’t heard from anyone at the state at all about this.”
Eben Markowski said he does not blame individual farmers.
“It’s beyond any of the actions of one farmer,” he said.
An artist and metalworker, Markowski considers several local farmers neighbors and friends. But he said this kind of water pollution is the inevitable consequence of large-scale, production-driven dairy farming.
“What is the policy that puts us in this position, either by not regulating, by looking the other way or by just incentivizing it? And valuing that, more than clean water,” he said.
Markowski said the state should have known when it granted the exemption for manure spreading what would happen as soon as it got warm.
“We’re spending diesel fuel to haul manure to a field to have it all wash off. This field, when you spread on top of snow, it was so evident that it is a clean sweep,” he said.
DiPietro, with the Agriculture Agency, said officials granted the exemption to the Allen farm because they thought it would be better to have the manure spread responsibly than to have the certain pollution from an overflowing manure pit.
She said the agency granted many more exemptions this winter than normal: 67 farms and eight certified manure applicators were allowed to spread manure on snow before ban went into effect. During the ban, another 19 exemptions were issued.
Normally the agency gets four to seven requests per year. DiPietro said the Agriculture Agency received 12 complaints about the spreading, and referred four of the cases to the Agency of Natural Resources for apparent water quality violations.
DiPietro said the long, harsh winter made it difficult for farmers to store manure for the full 180 days that is required.
“This is particularly a challenging year — probably the most challenged year I’ve seen in my tenure — which was a really rainy October, snow cover starting in November,” she said. “[There was] no break in snow cover, you know, all the way until now that the ban has lifted, but of course saturated soils.”
But long, snowy winters are not unusual in Vermont, said Michael Colby, an environmental activist with Regeneration Vermont. Colby used state public records law to look into water quality problems from the manure spreading this winter. He said what happened should not be a surprise.
“If snowing in November cannot be handled by our industrial dairy industry, we really need to wake up. We really need to focus on this, and we really need to transition away from this kind of confinement, concentrated animal husbandry,” Colby said. “It’s polluting our waters, it’s paying farmers less than the cost of production.”
DiPietro said the state has developed regulations to protect water from large-scale farming operations, noting that Vermont decades ago was among the first states to implement a winter manure-spreading ban.
“And some states now that are up in the northern climate are starting to look at doing that them themselves,” she said. “So we were certainly way ahead of the curve of saying we should probably practice better management during these times of year.”
WATCH — A video Markowski took of runoff heading into Button Bay in mid-March:
Back in Panton, Markowski guided me on a quick tour around farm fields and toward the Lake Champlain shoreline.
One of his videos from March shows brown water rushing off the land into Button Bay, near where Benedict Arnold beached his fleet in 1776 after fighting the British navy at Valcour Island to the north. The scene is still stunningly beautiful, but Button Bay has seen toxic algae blooms in recent years, in part fed by farm runoff.
“Our tourists, the guests to our state who are staying at Button Bay, ... they’re so hot or they’re here for the lake experience that they’re willing to, through their ignorance, jump into green pea soup and take that risk,” Markowski said. “And I think that’s not a good reflection on Vermont.”
Driving back to his place, Markowski pointed out several fields where herbicides were applied to cover crops and patches of woodland were leveled to grow more corn to feed more cows to produce more milk. Vermont, he said, needs to find a better way to practice agriculture.
Correction: 7:45 P.M, April 8 2019. Post has been updated to note that Button Bay has experienced blue green algae outbreaks in recent years, but not officially closed.