Environment: Digester a bay changer

Manure-to-power plan will help cleanse lake

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

The Facts

Owned by

ST. ALBANS – Excessive amounts of the nutrient phosphorus entered Lake Champlain for years, leading to low levels of dissolved oxygen, impaired aquatic life and reduced recreational use, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The St. Albans Bay watershed drains approximately 50 square miles of agricultural, forested, and urban land into St. Albans Bay, according to the EPA.

With some of the richest farmland in the state, the EPA said St. Albans’ agriculture, forested lands and stream bank instability accounted for 73 percent of the annual phosphorus load in the area.

State leaders, representatives from Green Mountain Power (GMP) and concerned town residents Tuesday morning gathered in the town’s bay park for a press conference to discuss one of the feasible solutions to this issue.

Paul Bourbeau, a resident of St. Albans, said he was very aware of “what the pressures and stresses are on our environment. We want to be partners in a solution,” he added.

Bourbeau, of Bourbeau Farms on Dunsmore Road, if approval is granted, would be one of three farmers to contribute manure for a community digester in the bay area.

The digester would use methane gas from farms’ manure to run a generator. The entire process would generate electricity, bedding for the cows and liquid manure for crop growth.

The digester also would reduce phosphorus pollution of St. Albans Bay by 32 percent of the EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) reduction target for agriculture.

“I live here and I love this area,” Denise Smith, director of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, said. “It’s very sad when for three months out of the year, during the warmest months, kids can’t use this lake or jump in it because of the toxic algae blooms that permeate our waterways.”

According to a 2015 EPA report, the flow of phosphorus into the St. Albans Bay was among the highest in the Lake Champlain basin because of uncontrolled sources in the area’s watershed.

Phosphorus caused algae blooms that in turn negatively affected the health of people and animals that came in contact with it.

General reactions were rashes, runny noses and sore throats. If the toxins from blue-green algae were ingested in large amounts, it led to severe stomach problems, liver damage and numb limbs, according to the EPA.

EPA said if the sources were not reduced before an in-lake treatment for phosphorus took place, the longevity and effectiveness of the treatment would be compromised.

“Agriculture is incredibly important to Vermont,” Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt. said Tuesday at a press conference on the bay shoreline. “This lake is incredibly important to Vermont. We can’t solve the phosphorus problem by denying there is a phosphorus problem.”

Through a double separation process, the digester would remove excess phosphorus from the manure, returning to the farms only what was necessary. The surplus from the watershed areas could be exported to other areas of Vermont that needed it to grow crops, said Bourbeau.

At first, St. Albans Town selectmen would not give a letter of support for the project. They wanted more information about the digester.

After a town meeting last week and a presentation during Monday’s selectboard meeting, the selectmen gave approval with a few conditions.

Some of the town’s residents at the meeting were concerned about the additional traffic that the digester would contribute to Dunsmore Rd and its potential negative effect on the road’s infrastructure. Representatives from GMP promised to pay for any damages to the road, as well as give monthly updates to the selectboard.

“Here we have a company that wants to invest in our lake to help us clean up, without going to the taxpayers to ask them for money,” Selectman Stan Dukas said. “It was going to help the farms; it was going to reduce the traffic on the highway. Why wouldn’t we do this?”

The community digester would have other benefits in addition to the reduction of phosphorus run off. The digester would also:

  • Generate enough renewable electricity to power about 700 homes annually
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalent of taking 1,300 cars off the road
  • Reuse the remaining fibers from the digester as farm bedding
  • Reduce the smell of manure.

“The Paris climate change conference is winding up,” Welch said. “If it is going to be successful, it has to be implemented in the real world, solving real problems.”

Welch said the digester was a perfect example of this.

When Smith spoke at the podium during the conference, she quoted Mark Magnan, one of the farmers involved in the project. “Our second most valuable commodity on our farm is our manure,” Smith repeated. “And we need to start treating it as an asset and not as a waste product.”

Bourbeau mentioned the idea for a community digester began 20 years ago among a group of farmers, but it continually fell apart for lack of startup funds.

Then a little over a year ago, the project was able to get up on its feet with the help from GMP.

The $8 million digester would be owned and operated by GMP. The company did not ask customers to pay; instead the St. Albans Bay area gets all of the benefits, said GMP Representative Josh Castonguay.

GMP brought what was already a very successful Cow Power program to the next level, said Sandy Levine, who is with the Conservation Law Foundation.

To date, Cow Power has mostly been for larger farms and it may have reached its limit, she added. But this new digester shows how you can combine smaller farms and reduce phosphorus run off, she said.

“It is about innovation, it is about community, it is about collaboration,” Mary Powell, president and CEO of GMP, said. “It is about clean energy, it is about clean water, it is about local renewable power. For those reasons, I could not be more excited.”

Pending approval from the Vermont Public Service Board, construction on the digester would begin the summer of 2016.