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Last week the Vermont Senate voted to support S.101, a bill meant to encourage more downtown development, in part by eliminating the state-issued permits for projects that need new wastewater hookups. It’s no surprise that developers heavily back this bill, even though it puts our waterways at increased risk of toxic wastewater spills. What is surprising is that Senate leadership claims the section on exemptions is needed because ecological protections make it difficult for developers to build affordable housing. And Vermont Natural Resources Council, a self described environmental organization, is right there along with them lobbying for growth instead of protections for our waterways.

We used to call this hypocrisy.

While the Senate was debating this very bill, over a million gallons of “treated and partially treated” effluent containing human waste spilled from a Montpelier facility into the Winooski River. Other spills in the weeks before occurred in Rutland, Burlington, South Burlington, and Essex Junction. Rutland is a repeat offender, with over 450 spills last year. That effluent heads downstream out to Lake Champlain impacting public health and wildlife along the way. Discharges of pathogenic effluent are common in cities and towns around the state.

The Agency of Natural Resources claims that rain is to blame for these accidental spills because plants that treat both municipal wastewater and stormwater can on occasion be overwhelmed. But rain was not a factor in the spills in recent weeks, nor in the majority of reported incidents. Is it possible that this is happening because so many of Vermont’s wastewater plants are operating on long-expired permits? The logical step would be to improve the ailing systems and increase regulatory oversight, not relax it.

According to the bill, municipalities will have authority to approve proposed projects without State oversight. And here’s the danger: they will likely base approval on promises of boosts to the tax base and other economic benefits, not whether a project may overtax an already ailing treatment plant. This will be a disaster.

When proponents, including VNRC, argue that giving exemptions to developers will lead to the construction of more affordable housing in downtowns, it is hard not to see this as empty virtue signaling intended to gain public approval. If we are told it’s for a good cause, it must be good, right? But this is solving for the wrong variable. If we want to address the issues creating the housing crisis, we could begin by looking at the way banks operate, at lack of protections for renters from monopolistic-style control of the market, at low wages paid to service sector workers, and the many other flaws in our economic system that lead to income disparity. Plus, it’s just plain more profitable for developers to construct condos and McMansions for the wealthy.

Protections that ensure the well-being of our waterways are not the obstacle to affordable housing.

VNRC’s role in this is disturbing, at best. The organization operates more like a boutique chamber of commerce than an environmental “watchdog” group. VNRC willfully ignores the destructive impacts S.101 will likely have on our waterways and instead, trumpets growth. “Smart growth” is the new green-washed code disguising the same destructive, business-as-usual behaviors that environmental organizations once resisted. S.101 is but one example.

And let’s face it, there is nothing “smart” about sacrificing our waterways on the altar of economics.

Environmentalism used to be about protecting the living natural world from the voracious appetite of the human economy. But addressing environmental problems with market based “solutions” – like sustainable development, “green” jobs, and smart growth – has proven quite lucrative. It even lands organizations a seat at the table! Environmentalism has certainly become mainstream – but it comes at the cost of its soul. Now it is about saving the destructive economic system, not the natural world – to the detriment of all.

Vermont’s waterways are part of our commons – they are the living legacy of all Vermonters, future generations, and our non-human neighbors. Neither developers nor municipalities should be allowed to put them at risk in pursuit of their own self-interest.

If made into law, the legacy of S.101 will be a true tragedy of the commons.

What can be done? Water quality advocates want the legislature to take out sections 10 and 11 of S.101 – the parts of the bill that remove state oversight and make it more likely development projects will be approved despite the risks to our rivers, lakes and the public. And we should insist that policies preventing the permitting of new projects that would further degrade our waterways are enforced – which, by the way, is required by law.

It is long past time we stop allowing the destruction of the Earth for profit. Instead maybe we could pause and consider what the Earth is asking of us.

Suzanna Jones writes from Walden. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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