Montpelier–The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (VANR) ignored staff warnings of environmental damage and inappropriately injected economic factors when it issued a 40-year permit to power plants along the Clyde River, according to an appeal filed today by New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (New England PEER), a non-profit watchdog group.

The permit would allow Citizen’s Utilities, a Connecticut company, to draw all but 30 cubic feet per second of the total flow of the Clyde River into its turbines. The appeal, filed before the Vermont Water Resources Board, contends the permit condition violates the Clean Water Act and state water standards requiring significant waterways maintain enough in-stream flow to sustain fish populations. The Clyde River is home to a number of wild salmon and other sensitive fish species.

In order to permit the plants, VANR Secretary Scott Johnstone overturned the recommendations of his own scientific staff, which had determined that fish require a minimum flow of 100 cubic feet per second most of the year, and 300 cubic feet per second during walleye spawning season. Secretary Johnstone has publicly defended his decision to overrule his agency’s experts by citing the need to balance water quality and salmon habitat with the need for energy production, a rationalization the appeal calls “arbitrary and contrary to science.”

The issue has been highly controversial within the agency. In an internal memo obtained by PEER, state biologist Rod Wentworth complains that the flow levels approved by Johnstone are a “habitat write-off” which will lead to a decline in the fisheries the agency is required to protect.

“The Secretary’s job is to protect state waters, not to promote the business interests of private companies,” said New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist formerly with EPA. “This permit is more than just embarrassing, it is illegal.”

The Water Resources Board’s decision will be binding on the VANR. A similar appeal has been filed by the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

“The decision to issue this permit was clearly based on politics, at the expense of science,” concluded Bennett.

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