May. 16, 2017 by Mike Polhamus
Legislators have backed down from a proposal to make farms’ plans to control their pollution exempt from Vermont’s public records laws.
Instead of making a decision, lawmakers passed a bill late last week that will establish a group to study whether the documents should be exempt from public disclosure. The bill now awaits Gov. Phil Scott’s signature.
Supporters of the exemption say the plans are matters belonging to private businesses and that their contents are not the public’s concern.
The Agency of Agriculture supported the exemption. Secretary Anson Tebbetts argued that keeping the plans from the public would help the environment by making farmers more comfortable disclosing what they do.
Opponents of the exemption say Vermonters will need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 20 years to pay farmers to reform their management practices. Farm runoff is one of the main sources of phosphorus contamination in Lake Champlain, which the state is mandated to reduce. Businesses getting that much public fiscal support, say opponents of the exemption, can’t shield their uses of the money from public oversight.
The bill, H.495, now contains language establishing groups to study whether to protect farmers’ pollution control documents, called nutrient management plans, from public view.
Creating an exemption in the public records law for the plans would have been a good thing, said Bill Rowell, co-owner of Green Mountain Dairy Farm. The Sheldon-based operation has more than 700 head of cattle.
Farmers spend thousands of dollars to write their nutrient management plans, Rowell said, and while farms do receive public subsidies to control pollution, those funds don’t pay for the plans themselves.
Furthermore, public disclosure of farmers’ plans to control pollution could reveal information that would affect their farms’ value, he said.
“If it affects the price of the asset,” Rowell said, “why would you want the public to have it? You paid for it. As long as you’re following the law, I can’t for the life of me think of why anybody else would be entitled to it.”
The bill takes on a tricky question, said Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, himself a farmer.
“It’s a delicate balance, because private business plans are one thing, but at the same time, the impact of our stewardship, and in particular our water, [deals with] a public good,” said Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat.
The plans are currently public information, and they’re required by law for what are classified as “large farming operations,” which for dairy farms are defined as those with more than 700 cattle. These plans will soon be required from smaller farms as well, as part of an effort to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain.