Our Work

VNRC Helps Block Short-Sighted Septic Measure

Sepetmber 2007

ANR Provision Would Have Put Ponds and Lakes at Risk of Septic Pollution

Thanks to a handful of vigilant and dedicated lawmakers and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Agency of Natural Resources recently removed an environmentally harmful loophole in its proposed rule governing septic systems. This important move, which will help prevent water pollution and limit sprawl, ends months of wrangling over the issue.

A legislative oversight committee put its final stamp of approval on the rules September 12, and the rules will go into effect in the coming weeks.

“We are pleased that the ANR – the supposed ‘guardian’ of Vermont’s natural resources, has finally, after months of foot-dragging, proposed a septic rule that does not include exemptions that would pollute Vermont’s waters,” said Jon Groveman, VNRC’s water program director. “The ANR could have adopted the basic rule — which moves the authority to regulate septic systems from towns to the state — months earlier if they had not tried to tack on several anti-environmental measures.”

The rule governs the installation and maintenance of septic systems – those in-ground systems near homes that handle household waste from toilets, sinks, and showers. In developing the rule, the ANR listened hard to developers, but had failed, until they were pressured in four separate hearings over the summer by a legislative oversight committee, to fully consider the pollution their proposal could spawn.

The ANR attempted to push through a provision that would have essentially exempted the conversion of seasonal camps – many of which sit along the shores of Vermont’s lakes and ponds – into year-round homes. Many camps and cottages in Vermont lack modern septic systems. Using these houses more regularly or turning them into permanent homes — a growing trend — could have serious implications. Because old systems often aren’t equipped to meet expansion needs they could more easily fail, sending septic effluent into lakes, streams, and nearby wells.

In an ironic twist, the exemption would have increased the risk of phosphorous discharges from camps along Lake Champlain — a direct contradiction to the Douglas administration’s trumpeted goal of cleaning up the lake. The damaging implications were clear to many. A group of administrators from Lake Champlain communities harshly denounced the ANR’s shortsighted plan. In a July letter, administrators said they were “appalled that the ANR would consider such an irresponsible proposal.”

While the removal of this exemption was an important victory, VNRC continues to oppose one part of the rules: a contingency which allows property owners to escape having to identify a replacement septic area on their lot in which they could put another system if the first one fails. This option to “opt-out” will make it easier for developers to carve up Vermont’s rural forest and farmlands for development. VNRC will work in the Legislature in January to overturn this provision.


Lake photo on front page by Ron Powers.