Burlington's compost facility tries to digest environmental and aboriginal charges
Organic matter cooks while it's breaking down into compost. But the combo never gets as hot as it has at the Burlington Intervale, where a series of alleged environmental and land-use violations has ambushed one of the largest — and most successful — composting operations in Vermont.
At the center of the controversy is Intervale Compost Products, a 16-acre not-for-profit composting operation located on the city's floodplain. In operation since the mid-'90s, the facility receives such stinky items as manure, decomposed leaves and food waste from big-time suppliers such as Ben & Jerry's, Saputo Cheese Manufacturing and the University of Vermont. Over nine months, the gunk is collected into piles and then converted into soil-enriching compost.
At least, that's what used to happen before the state of Vermont took action against ICP. In August, investigators from the Agency of Natural Resources accused the facility of, among other things, dumping contaminated wastewater onto nearby community garden plots. A few months earlier, the Natural Resources Board deemed that ICP should be classified as a "commercial enterprise" rather than a "farm." If the facility doesn't comply with the accompanying new requirements, it could be shut down by next summer. Meanwhile, to the dismay of herbivorous Burlingtonians, the facility has stopped accepting food-waste donations in accordance with legal stipulations.
ICP's predicament stems in large part from complaints filed by Judy Dow, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. Dow, 53, grew up near the Intervale. Over the last year, she's been publicly criticizing the composting operation as an environmental and archeological hazard. She claims ICP is perched atop an Abenaki burial ground, though she refuses to furnish documentation to back up her assertion.
Intervale Center Executive Director Kit Perkins has responded to the alleged violations with cautious diplomacy. But beneath the public relations veneer, ICP employees — who are not allowed to speak with the media on the organization's behalf — are indignant and frustrated.
Even some politicians have gotten involved. Last week, Vermont's Republican Party issued a statement accusing Intervale farmer and state rep David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) and Speaker of the House Gaye Symington (D-Jericho), the Intervale's development coordinator, of being "clueless" environmental stewards. Zuckerman, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, characterizes that statement as "unfortunate."
"People are making it into something political," Judy Dow claims, but, "It's not that at all. It's a story about abuse to the land."
What is going on at the Intervale? How do squash rinds and leaf piles threaten responsible land-use policy and Native American rights?
The roots of the present controversy stretch back to 1980, when the Burlington Electric Department planned to build the Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station. Since the Intervale is a flood plain, engineers wanted to bulk up the McNeil plot by excavating sand from the present-day ICP site, which was then a cornfield and junkyard. Before tearing up the so-called "borrow area," they commissioned an archeological study of the turf in question.
As it turns out, the results were archeologically "significant" — that is, littered with pottery shards and possible cremation remains. Months later, a follow-up study of the lower Winooski River Valley ranked the Intervale as the most sensitive archeological site in an area stretching as far as Westford, Starksboro and Bolton.
In the mid-'80s, Gardeners' Supply Company founder Will Rapp partnered with the City of Burlington to develop a small, rotating composting operation. A few years later, the Chittenden Solid Waste District joined in, and Intervale Compost Products was born. By the late 1990s, ICP had settled on the present site as its permanent location. According to Karl Hammer, owner of Montpelier's Vermont Compost Company and a consultant for ICP in the '90s, the Burlington operation eventually "became a fairly substantial, commercial-volume compost facility."
Although he's technically a competitor, Hammer is philosophically aligned with ICP's composting efforts; he's a strong proponent of local food security. He says the project has never operated perfectly. "I have to say, having been there, we all knew that indigenous aboriginal folks had lived on the Intervale," he says. "It sort of never came up in the deliberations."
That said, it wasn't as if Hammer and other industrious composters planned to disturb the archeological site. He stresses that, while he once plowed the plot to a depth of 8 or 10 inches, previous farmers regularly dug to depths of 24 inches.
Subsequent changes facilitated ICP's steady growth. In 2002, a new liquid-waste contract drastically increased food-waste intake. In 2005 and 2006, ICP constructed stormwater-holding ponds — the ANR calls them "leachate"-filled "lagoons." The composting piles grew taller and more concentrated. By 2007, ICP was ostensibly in compliance with agricultural and environmental permits, but it was a much larger operation than when it started.
Who cares? The State of Vermont, for one. Years before ICP's creation, the agriculture and natural resources agencies had signed an agreement stating that if more than half of a farm's products are produced on site, the property is exempt from Act 250 regulations. According to Hammer, that agreement was designed to help farmers manage pollution without incurring unnecessary bureaucratic oversight. In the process, it created different regulations for farms and farm-like businesses.
Fast forward to May of this year when, acting on Judy Dow's complaints, the Natural Resources Board determined that ICP was a commercial operation, arguing that "most of ICP's composting materials come from either residences or commercial business in Burlington."
Now everyone in the Intervale — even cultivators who have had nothing to do the compost project — has to abide by Act 250. Farmers, for instance, are prohibited from putting down stakes and erecting winter greenhouses. Ironically, ICP has had to curtail its own wastewater irrigation project. "When we talk about the state's ability to manage these things," Hammer admits, "there's much confusion." Earlier this week, he filed his own Act 250 papers in Montpelier. He received a letter in March from the Natural Resources Board asking him to clarify Vermont Compost Company's status as a farm or a commercial operation. He's making a case for the former.
Underlying the Act 250 conflict is a stickier issue: whether or not the Intervale's composting operation is damaging the burial ground. "As we learn more about the concerns around archeological resources, we're being extremely careful to follow the proper regulatory processes," notes Perkins. But she adds that it's never been clear what is considered legal in the first place. "Some of the regulations that are being applied to regulate this facility are not customized for compost operations," she grouses. "They're [either] solid-waste rules, or they're environmental rules like Act 250."
For Dow, that argument doesn't fly. "The problem is, this is not agriculture, this is a business," she insists. "Because it's a business, they have a totally different set of rules to follow, and they didn't follow the rules . . . If they're not happy with the laws, they just need to change them," Dow continues. "They keep saying, 'We didn't know, we inadvertently did this, we didn't know.' Well . . . it should be their job to know."
The plot thickens. Though Dow is a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, her legitimacy is questioned by the Franklin County-based St. Francis/Sokoki band of Abenaki. According to Fred Wiseman, a tribal historian and Johnson State College professor, most concerns over Abenaki burial grounds are addressed by archeologists from either the University of Vermont or the University of Maine at Farmington. Regarding Dow's archeological concerns, Wiseman reports, "As far as I know, I have not been contacted by either of those [schools]."
April St. Francis Merrill, chief of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, St. Francis/Sokoki band, offers a harsher critique of Dow. She says that her fellow tribespeople are incensed over the woman's actions. "Judy Dow claims that she represents all the Abenaki people," notes Merrill. "She doesn't represent them, so I don't know where she gets off saying that, just because she's on a commission."
According to the chief, the burial-ground controversy is the latest chapter in a larger narrative. After decades of lobbying, the Abenaki were granted state recognition in May 2005 by Governor Jim Douglas. St. Francis Merrill claims that the victory opened the door to peripheral figures who claim to be Abenaki reps. Dow, an artist and basketmaker who teaches Native American heritage classes, maintains she doesn't consider herself a member of a particular tribe. Furthermore, Dow says she never claimed to speak for all Abenaki, only for the state-appointed commission.
Either way, the two women hold opposing views on the Intervale situation. While Dow condemns ICP, St. Francis Merrill praises it as a model of sustainability. "When the Intervale first started," notes the latter, "we thought it was kind of a good idea — that we recycle, and reuse, and go back to Mother Earth . . . as long as the burial section was protected, that was our major concern. That's always been our concern with any historical site, that they're not desecrated."
The chief is planning to visit the Intervale this week to see the situation for herself.
Equipment Steward Craig Barratt, a 27-year-old Swanton native who has worked at ICP for five years, may be uniquely qualified to assess the compost conflict — although he stresses that his views are his own, not ICPs. On a recent Thursday afternoon, he descends from a bright-purple dump truck to speak with a reporter, sporting rugged overalls, a John Deere hat and a trim beard.
According to Barratt, whose father is a registered St. Francis/Sokoki band Abenaki, recent articles in the Burlington Free Press have inaccurately portrayed ICP staff as "buffoons." He contends that the allegations about solid-waste and water-quality violations are either untrue or misleading. As an example, he points out that one violation was merely an issue of misclassifying liquid waste as solid waste. "We just don't feel like the whole story's getting out," he laments. "It hurts when you see the things that have been written about us."
Speaking to the alleged violations, Barratt concedes that the recent excavation of stormwater-holding ponds may not have been the smartest move. However, he doesn't think current scraping procedures damage archeological remains, noting that machinery goes down 6 inches at most.
Barratt, who makes $17 an hour plus benefits, doesn't consider his gig at ICP just any day job. He talks about compost as if it were his spiritual salvation. "I didn't even know anything about composting before I started working here," he explains. "I just had heavy-equipment experience, and that's how I got the job. But I've come to love this place, and I believe in what we're doing. It's opened my eyes."
Considering his attachment to ICP, it's understandable that Barratt seems annoyed by Dow's behavior. He says she's "gotten under [his] skin" by "snooping" around ICP with her camera. "It's not a factor of 'Where do we start negotiating?'" he says, scratching his head. "Judy Dow's negotiating point is, 'You guys leave!' And it's kind of hard to negotiate with someone when that's their demand."
Frustration aside, Barratt's still hoping to find common ground with Dow. In March, he attended a talk she gave at the center and learned a thing or two about the Intervale site. "We'd love to give the Abenaki a spot to repatriate remains, or plant flowers, or pray," he says.
The composting saga has unearthed an unreported irony: According to a state archeologist, the alleged burial ground that Dow wants to preserve at all costs is significant for another reason: Back in 1979, researchers turned up the first evidence of early corn cultivation in Vermont. The date of those corn harvests stretches back a bit further than either Dow's or Barratt's lifetimes — to 1200 AD.
As sea gulls soar above the nearby compost piles, Barratt pauses to watch a bulldozer dump a load. Judy Dow "told us that this has historically been a great area for the Abenaki," he muses. "If it was their breadbasket, I don't see why it can't continue to be a breadbasket."
Breaking into a smile, he adds, "Compost is an integral part of it. I mean, you have to feed the soil to make plants grow."