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Power Line Agreement Could Bring Big Money To Lake Cleanup

Conservation Law Foundation Senior Attorney Chris Kilian, seen here observing a cyanobacteria bloom on St. Albans Bay in 2014, says state officials are allowing sewage plants to send more phosphorus into Lake Champlain instead of less.
Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
Conservation Law Foundation Vermont Director Chris Kilian said last summer's algae bloom in St. Albans Bay was among the worst he'd seen. A new agreement between CLF and TDI New England would bring millions of dollars to the lake cleanup effort.

An agreement between the Conservation Law Foundation and TDI New England could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Lake Champlain cleanup effort if regulators approve TDI’s proposed New England Clean Power Link project.

The agreement, announced Monday, increases TDI New England’s funding commitment to $283.5 million for three major funds designed to help lake cleanup efforts and encourage the development of renewable energy in the state. The sum represents a 75 percent increase from TDI New England's previous funding proposal.

Funding for Lake Champlain cleanup efforts has been a topic of much debate in recent years. State officials estimated in 2013 that it would take annual funding of $156 million to bring the lake into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Then in 2014, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said that estimate was high but didn’t suggest an exact number.

The state has been developing a new lake cleanup plan for years, but hasn’t developed a full strategy for funding those efforts. A bill out of the legislature this year promises about $10 million annually, and Sen. Patrick Leahy regularly announces grants to fund water quality efforts, but a comprehensive funding plan has yet to appear.

TDI New England’s commitment of $283.5 million – most of which will go to lake cleanup funds – is the single largest financial commitment to Lake Champlain cleanup so far.

That funding promise could be key to the approval of the 154-mile underground and underwater transmission line, says Chris Kilian, the director of CLF’s Vermont office. The mandate of the Vermont Public Service Board – which must sign off on any utility project in Vermont – is to approve a project only if it is in the best interest of the state, and the New England Clean Power Link is designed primarily to deliver energy to customers in other states.

"So when assessing the public good, and whether the project is in the overall public good of the state of Vermont, the board really needs to take a hard look at this sort of mitigation fund or public benefit fund." - Chris Kilian, Vermont director, Conservation Law Foundation

“So when assessing the public good, and whether the project is in the overall public good of the state of Vermont, the board really needs to take a hard look at this sort of mitigation fund or public benefit fund,” Kilian said.

The Department of Public Service, which is tasked with representing the public’s interests before the board, also applauded the agreement.

“As our testimony on Friday relays, it is necessary for a project of this sort to demonstrate significant benefits for the state of Vermont, and the agreement announced today moves this project in the right direction,” Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said in a statement.

In addition to the funding commitment, the agreement creates a legal oversight mechanism to require public disclosure of the sourcing of electricity provided through the New England Clean Power Link so the company can be held accountable on its claim that the power comes from renewable sources. It does not, however, set any requirement that the power actually come from renewable sources.

The lack of any binding commitment that energy transmitted through the New England Clean Power Link be renewable has raised some concern at the Department of Public Service, according to testimony filed Friday.

The testimony says the way the energy system normally operates, it would be unusual for TDI New England to secure sourcing contracts that guarantee the New England Clean Power Link will be transmitting only renewable energy for the entirety of its 40-year expected lifetime.

“Finally, it is unclear whether the PSB has legal authority to require that the project transport only renewable power,” the department’s testimony says, citing a legal standard known as the “dormant commerce clause,” which prohibits states from setting restrictions on interstate commerce.

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