Laurel Casey counts herself as a casualty of farm pollution.
Her small, lakeshore house in Bridport has been damaged by runoff from the farm fields above her. She said she’s had trouble renting out a camp on the property because the bay just feet away is often choked with potentially toxic blue-green algae. And she blames the algae blooms for the sore throat and diarrhea she experienced all summer.
But the last straw came this fall, when a pile of foam “like a bathtub for a giant” clogged a gully next to her house. The brown foam was a visible and smelly sign that diluted manure was running right by her front door.
Casey shot video of the foam and alerted state officials. It wasn’t the first time.
“I’ve been talking to them for five years now,” she said. “And they come down, and they check out the farms, and say, ‘Well, they’re within their limits.'”
“There aren’t any regulations,” she added. “There’s very few regulations.”
That’s the crux of the frustration Casey and others who live near large farm operations in Addison County have with state. They say they’ve seen the lake get worse over the years from farm waste that fertilizes the algae blooms. And, they add, usually no one is held responsible.
About 14 miles north of Laurel Casey’s house, a half dozen people gather in Roy Shea’s expansive lakeside home on Button Bay to tell their stories of living with water pollution. Shea, a retired business owner, has become a bit of an eco-warrior. He’s turned out at state meetings to castigate officials for what he says is their failure to hold polluters to account.
“It’s hypocrisy — it’s blatant hypocrisy how the state of Vermont presents itself as the greenest of the green,” he said. “And they let this happen. And again, they continue to let it happen.”
Shea spread across a table color photos showing plumes of dirty water flowing into the lake. Other pictures taken this spring and summer depict nearby parts of the lake covered by a dense blanket of blue-green algae.
Tom Spencer lives just down the road. A former dairy farmer, Spencer, now in his 70s, has since developed housing on 30 acres of land his ancestors first worked two centuries ago.
“When I was a child swimming in this lake, we never saw algae,” he said.
And now, he said, his life savings are tied up in his lakeshore home.
“It’s a major part of my assets,” he said. “And why would someone want to buy a house in front of basically a sewer? It’s the dairy farm sewer.”
Deb Hartenstein also lives nearby, in a place that her family bought in 1999. She’s sailed on the lake for years, and she said she’s never seen it this bad.
“I think I lost track this summer, of the number of times I’d throw my bathing suit on, towel, walk down the steps, thinking I’m gonna [swim],” she said. But after looking at the water, she would decide: “Not today. Not gonna jump in.”
And Mark Berger is a part-time Vermonter, a physician from Texas who bought a home here, because, he said, he fell in love with the state and what he calls its “Vermont brand” of a clean, pure environment.
“Over the last 16 or 17 years we’ve been up here, we’ve noticed incredible deterioration in the quality of life around the lake,” he said.
Berger and the other lakeshore property owners gathered at Roy Shea’s house are directly affected by water pollution. But they said a worsening Lake Champlain is everyone’s problem. Tourist revenue will continue to decline if the water stays dirty, they said, and they also point out that hundreds of thousands of people get their drinking water from the lake. This includes the city of Vergennes, which draws its water from nearby Arnold Bay.
“If you live in the lake and around these large industrial farms, all we are are the canaries in the mine, but all of us are in the mine,” Berger said.
Berger wrote a detailed letter to state leaders this summer outlining his concerns.
“And I got absolutely no response, no response whatsoever,” he said. “This and other things that all of us have experienced over the years really makes us believe that politicians, the people who make the laws, chose to turn their heads from the problem.”
State government divides oversight of farms. Vermont’s agriculture agency regulates activities on the land, like manure spreading and nutrient management plans. The Agency of Natural Resources is supposed to take over when pollution leaves the farm and enters public water.
But the result can be a bureaucratic quagmire where enforcement cases are delayed, sometimes for years.
A case in point is the Vorsteveld farm, a 2,100 acre operation in Panton that currently milks about 1,000 cows. Neighbors blame the Vorstevelds for serious manure runoff and water quality problems.
And Deb Hartenstein said it doesn’t seem like the state has done much about it.
“The word encroachment keeps coming up in my head,” she said. “And the lack of control, and the lack of sense of responsibility that these agencies want to assume.”
Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is familiar with the complaints.
“This is clearly not the way we want to be doing business,” she said. “And we are making a number of changes regarding our compliance and enforcement activities.”
State records show a number of complaints against the Vorstevelds over the years, including allegations that they drained or altered wetlands in 2016 and 2017. The state also investigated reports in 2018 and again this year alleging the Vorstevelds allowed manure-laden water to flow off fields, into ditches and toward the lake.
Despite multiple inspections and a fat digital file of photos and site visit reports, the alleged violations have not led to penalties. Moore said the cases are still open, but added she’s not satisfied with how they have stalled.
“The timing of this is not acceptable from my perspective, and I’m working with the team to put in place a different set of systems to ensure we move more quickly,” she said.
But there’s an irony here, because in many ways, the Vorstevelds are doing just what the state wants when it comes to reducing pollution on their farm.
On a recent, snowy afternoon, Hans Vorsteveld — one of three brothers who own the place — sat in his cluttered office right off the milking parlor. Shelves were stuffed with paper and tools. A white five gallon bucket overflowed with empty vials of cow medications, and someone had spray painted graffiti on the walls.
But if the Vorstevelds have spent little on office décor, they have invested heavily in the latest field and crop technology.
“We’re probably doing the most environmental friendly farming that you can do,” he said.
He ticked off the innovative management practices designed to minimize runoff:
“We do no-till, so we don’t till the dirt. We put cover crops on after we take the corn off. And in the fall, in the clay ground, we inject manure. So it’s in the ground. And we tile our fields so there’s hardly any runoff.”
These are all practices the state supports, and in some cases, helps pay for. Vorsteveld, whose father brought his family here from the Netherlands, is clearly proud of the progress. He said the farm has less environmental impact than it did 10 years ago.
“We don’t like washouts,” he said. “We like to keep our soil — we work hard to get fertile soil. And it’s always the best soil that washes off, because that’s the finest particles. So we want to keep that. We want to keep that more than the people that are worried about the lake, because that’s our livelihood.”
Vorsteveld said he isn’t worried about the lake, nor does he think the farm is responsible for any pollution.
“I’ve been swimming in the lake every year, and there’s been algae blooms in it every year,” he said. “It’s fine. It never bothered me a bit. I’ll dive right in, I’ll go swim, and then I’m out beyond it.”
He’s also a bit defiant about his neighbors. He said the complaints got louder when he and his brothers cleared trees lining a section of road in order to install tile drainage in the field.
“It was just a waste of land with nothing on there but shrubbery,” he said. “We cut ‘em all down in about two hours… But it’s not like I’m in their land cutting their trees down. They could have bought the land. It was for sale.”
Vorsteveld said he thought the various environmental complaints were resolved. He added that the agriculture agency just inspected his farm under its large farm permit program and found no problems with runoff.
“If we do have a problem, we do try to fix it,” he said.
And, of course, this farm is not the only one in southern Addison County with water quality problems.
In Panton, the Allendale Farm spread hundreds of thousands of gallons of liquid manure on melting snow last spring, which then flowed into streams and nearby Lake Champlain. Agency of Natural Resources enforcement staff said recently they could not prosecute because the agriculture agency gave the farm verbal permission to spread the manure.
Moore said she’s not happy with how that case turned out. But she chose her words carefully when asked about the oversight shared between her agency and the agriculture agency.
“Anytime you have two agencies that have a charge that can and does at times overlap, there’s both a tension and a friction,” she said. “I think some of these field-based practices and manure spreading concerns are right at that nexus, or right at the intersection of our two jurisdictions.”
Back in Bridport, Laurel Casey is at the exact center of the problem. Her doublewide has been damaged by heavy flooding from the fields belonging to Iroquois Acres, the dairy farm uphill from her property. Diluted manure sometimes runs by her front door. She said she felt sick much of the summer and suspects bad water and algae blooms were to blame. She’s also worried she won’t be able to rent her nearby cabin in the summer because the lake is too dirty for swimming.
Without that rental to supplement her Social Security income, she said she may have to move. She wants the cows to move instead.
“Obviously, we can’t have cows this near to our water supplies anymore,” she said. “I don’t want them to go out of business, it’s just can we move the cows and the manure away from our water supplies.”
Moore said she was disheartened when she saw the video of the foam at Casey’s place, and that the state is close to taking action against the neighboring farm for improper manure spreading.
Stephanie Ouellette, whose family owns Iroquois Acres near Casey, said she had not yet heard back from the state.
“We have been here for generations, and we want to be good neighbors, and we want to do the right thing, and we think we are,” she said. “We do care about the lake — we want what everybody else does in cleaning up the water.”
Moore said she believes farms have really stepped up to improve water quality. But she said they need to be even more vigilant.
“Really small quantities of phosphorus can be damaging to our waterways,” she said. “It’s not enough to be 95 or maybe even 98% accurate, you need to be 99.99% accurate. When we’re talking about phosphorus pollution in our waters, we’re measuring things in parts per billion.”