By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
More than a year of public protest over a plan to use herbicides to control an invasive weed in Lake Bomoseen has come to an unexpected and, in some ways, anticlimactic end: The state is poised to deny the permit.
The application and full draft decision can be viewed at bit.ly/0317App.
The decision is still a draft, and is subject to a 30-day public comment period, which ends July 31.
In January 2022, the Lake Bomoseen Association applied for a permit to spray the herbicide ProcellaCOR to control Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive plant that is becoming increasingly common across the country and has spread to many areas of the 2,400-acre lake.
Since then, the debate has spurred division in the Rutland County towns that surround Lake Bomoseen, the largest lake within Vermont’s borders. Locals protested the use of herbicides with demonstrations, town hall meetings, signs in public areas around the lake, and through dialogue that permeated the walls of the Statehouse. Lawmakers responded, passing legislation that could change the statewide permitting process for herbicides.
The debate appeared to come to an abrupt halt last week as officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a draft decision that the application did not meet three of the five criteria required for herbicide approval.
While the decision is still subject to public comment and could be appealed to the state Environmental Court, Liz Bird, president of the Lake Bomoseen Association, said the board is not immediately planning to challenge the decision.
“We’re going to kind of regroup and mull it over and take a look at the whole process, and then we’ll come to some decision at some point,” she said.
Milfoil grows quickly and aggressively and can out-compete native plants. In the long term, it can diminish the health of the ecosystem and become a nuisance to recreators, according to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.
But when locals learned of the association’s plan, many were outraged and worried that potential impacts of the herbicide would be worse than the effects of the milfoil.
Some residents expressed concern that ProcellaCOR could have unintended consequences for human and environmental health, and said herbicides and pesticides should be used only for dire situations as a last resort.
“You need only read the papers — your paper, practically daily, has some story on the use of chemicals in our society and what they’re doing to us,” said Bob Stannard, an angler who owns property on the lake. Stannard, a former state representative and lobbyist, has been organizing the movement against spraying herbicides.
Anglers in the area worried that the treatment’s success could drastically alter the lake’s existing ecology. Even though the weed is invasive, it’s existed for long enough that the fish have adapted to it, anglers argued.
Locals also expressed frustration about what they described as a lack of effort from the lake association to gauge public interest in herbicide treatment before it applied for the permit.
And some who opposed the herbicide pointed to the state permitting process, which they believed was predisposed to grant approval for chemical applications.
Stannard and others took the debate to the State House. In its first form, the resulting bill would have enacted a temporary moratorium on “the use or application of pesticides, chemicals other than pesticides, or biological controls.” By the time Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law in June, it only created a study committee to examine the existing law that governs pesticide permitting, and did not include the moratorium.
“I think we’d all agree that the starting point for any discussion about chemicals in water should be ‘no,’” Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, who introduced the bill, told members of the House Committee on Environment and Energy at the time. “Then, you move on to a discussion about whether there are circumstances under which it might be justified, and then what they might be.”
The existing statute “gets very quickly to ‘yes,’” he said.
State officials’ pending decision to deny the permit seems to indicate otherwise.
“My first response when I heard this the other day was one of, really, complete surprise,” Stannard said. “I had not anticipated this outcome.”
But Stannard was more inclined to credit local advocacy rather than the permitting process itself. He gestured to the 3,500 signatures on a petition opposing the application.
“My understanding was Governor Scott got hundreds of phone calls on this — probably more than any other issue — and that was because I was working to get phone calls in. That’s how you do it, you just apply pressure and hope it works,” he said. “In this case, it did.”
He characterized the language that describes the five criteria an applicant must meet to obtain a permit as “sloppy” and “just shy of arbitrary.” State officials have been making do with the unclear language, he said, but the statute that guides the process still needs to be revised.
Oliver Pierson, head of the state’s lakes and ponds program, disagrees. State officials weighed public input in their decision, he said, but it “wasn’t determinative.”
“We had multiple factors that led us to deny this application as it was submitted. And public opposition to the permit was something that we incorporated into only one of the three findings we made that prevented us from issuing this permit,” he said.
Pierson said the state denied the permit in part because the project “presented an unacceptable risk to the non-target environment.”
While the state has never approved an herbicide application area of more than 30 or 40 acres, Pierson said, the association sought to apply ProcellaCOR on roughly 200 acres of the lake per year for three years.
The area “included some parts of the lake with rare, threatened or endangered species, and some parts of the lake that were important for flora and fauna regeneration,” he said.
In addition, the application did not prove that the association had a plan for reducing the use of pesticides over time. Applications are required to show that “a long-range management plan has been developed which incorporates a schedule of pesticide minimization.”
The third criteria that the Lake Bomoseen Association was unable to show requires “a public benefit to be achieved from the application of a pesticide.”
That’s where the public opposition factored in, Pierson said.
With a total of 600 acres to be treated over three years, “We really needed to be sure that there was a commensurately large public benefit to the proposed treatment,” he said.
“We didn’t find that to be the case. We found that the proposed treatment might improve some of the public good uses,” he said, “but not in the manner that outweighed the potential adverse impact.”
While Pierson said he’s prepared to work with the study committee to examine the statute and the state’s process, the existing process “is an extremely comprehensive, data-driven and objective review process,” he said. “We don’t go into it in any predetermined position, yes or no.”
With regard to the spread of milfoil, and the general health of the lake, Pierson said the Lake Bomoseen Association recently received funding from the state to develop a watershed action plan, which identifies stressors to the lake and charts out paths to reduce them.
“That could be a process to, I think, bring people together,” he said. “The herbicide application was somewhat divisive, locally, as people were either for it or against it. I would like to think that a process to focus on improving water quality in the lake … might be a more unifying, or less controversial, effort.”
Bird, head of the Lake Bomoseen Association, said she’s ready for more unity, too.
While she expressed disappointment that the permit application is facing a denial, she said the association is made up of people who have strong connections to the lake, and who want the same outcome as those who opposed the permit.
“We would never want to do anything that we didn’t think was safe,” she said. “We can disagree on the methods, but agree that we all, really, are looking for the same goal of long-term lake health.”