Lawmakers Wrestle with Lyman Stream Pollution
April 09, 2008 -
AUGUSTA — A Lyman business that turns farm and food waste into organic compost for gardeners is back in trouble with neighbors and state officials because of a slimy, white fungus that has spread in a nearby stream.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is seeking a contempt-of-court order to halt pollution discharges from Winterwood Farm after more than two years of off-and-on talks with the company's owner, Robert St. Onge. A hearing is scheduled for April 18 in Biddeford District Court, according to the Attorney General's Office.
Meanwhile, the dispute continues to spill over into the Legislature, where two committees are dueling over how to deal with the problem. One, the Natural Resources Committee, called regulators in Monday for an update on the pollution.
Runoff from the piles of composting wastes spilled into tributaries of Lords Brook in October 2005, and has been continually entering the stream system ever since, according to DEP officials.
Despite efforts to help the company and a court-approved agreement to stop polluting the stream, the operation clearly continues to be in violation, said Andrew Fisk, director of the DEP's land and water bureau.
Neighbors and state officials say the fungus, which blooms in the presence of the polluted runoff, has gotten worse and spread beyond a dam more than a mile downstream from the compost operation.
Charles and Roxann Gregory, who live along the brook, wrote to the DEP last week asking the state to shut down the business to save the stream.
"Once again, Lords Brook and Pond in Lyman is inundated with a white aquatic fungus growing thick all over the pond and stream, giving it the appearance of used toilet paper everywhere you look," they wrote.
State officials say thick blooms of the fungus, which is always present but usually not visible, smothers aquatic life in what is classified as a high-value trout stream.
The owner of Winterwood Farm, Robert St. Onge, did not attend the presentation and could not be reached Monday afternoon. He has blamed the DEP for being inflexible and making it too difficult and costly to fix the problem.
An official from the Maine Agriculture Department told lawmakers the discharges could be stopped if Winterwood Farm is given more time. Matthew Randall, an agricultural compliance officer, said St. Onge is working to get a federal grant that could pay for expanding detention ponds to contain runoff from the composting piles of waste.
"He doesn't want to see degradation. He doesn't want to see his name associated with pollution and all that," said Randall.
A representative of Winterwood Farm and a group of large compost operators said St. Onge's company is in bankruptcy.
"The problem is he can't afford to make the upgrades," said Jed Rathband, spokesman for the Maine Agricultural Composters Association.
The federal grant could help, but it can't be awarded if the company is considered to be in violation, Rathband said.
Some Maine lawmakers, meanwhile, said the company has already been given too much time.
"He's got to realize this is Maine water, that he doesn't own it, the people of Maine do, and he has no right to pollute it," said Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. "I don't want to criticize DEP, but it's gone on too long."
Fisk said the DEP cannot shut the operation down, although the court could.
Members of the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee see it differently, focusing more on the Winterwood Farm's value as a recycler of tons of farm and food waste.
"If we could stop those (detention) ponds from overflowing, I think we've got a golden opportunity there," said Rep. Donald Marean, R-Hollis.
The Agriculture committee has submitted a bill on behalf of St. Onge and others that would shift regulatory authority from the DEP to the Agriculture Department. A similar bill failed last year, but led to a formal agreement by DEP and Agriculture officials to work together.
Members of the Natural Resources Committee opposed the idea after listening to the presentation Monday, saying the DEP is charged with protecting the state's waters. Some said violators shouldn't get to choose which agency they deal with.
But a chairwoman of the Agriculture committee who sat through the presentation raised her voice in protest when Agriculture officials weren't given a chance to comment.
"The issue is to stop this guy right now. We haven't been able to," said Wendy Pieh, D-Bremen. "If we don't work together, which is not what you're doing today, we're not going to stop this."
By JOHN RICHARDSON, this article first appeared in the Portland Press Herald, April 8, 2008.
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