By Julie Moore
Secretary, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
One of my favorite writers, David Quammen, penned an article for National Geographic more than 10 years ago, titled Hallowed Ground: Nothing Is Ever Safe. In it he notes: “In the world of conservation professionals, there is a dour saying: All our victories are temporary; only the defeats are permanent.” He goes on to conclude the article, however, with a slightly more cheerful variant – reminding the reader that our natural resources are only as good as “the intensity with which we treasure them.” To me, a critical piece of this necessary intensity is the work of the Agency to promote and celebrate good, concrete examples of people doing the right thing, in the right spot, and in the most responsible way. Front and center in this approach are some of the amazing opportunities for reuse and redevelopment that exist here in Vermont.
This past fall, I was delighted to be asked to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Elizabeth Mine Solar Project. Folks of Strafford and the surrounding towns will immediately recognize the name of one of Vermont’s notorious, and thankfully rare, Superfund sites. At this abandoned mine, operated from the early 1800s until 1958, the materials left over after copper was separated from mined rock – the tailings – were simply left in enormous piles. And over time, heavy metals and minerals began to leach from the tailing piles, polluting local streams. At one time, over four miles of the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River was impaired due to acid mine drainage from the Elizabeth Mine.
Through a strong and decade-long partnership between my Agency, the local community and U.S. EPA, this former Superfund site has been creatively repurposed, drawing new life (and solar light) from a piece of land that had been long neglected. The restoration has resulted in stabilization of the tailing piles and treatment of site runoff, leading to the recovery of local waterways.
Eliminating polluted runoff from the mine was an important environmental outcome, but the community’s definition of success also included returning the area to beneficial and productive use. That’s no small feat for a Superfund site. While a number of opportunities for reuse were contemplated, ultimately a solar project was determined to be the best fit. In fact, the installation of a solar project is not only an appropriate use, it’s an ideal use for the site.
The innovative repurposing of the site brings benefits to Vermonters as well:
Under Superfund regulations, the state is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the remediation structures. Now, thanks to the partnership, the solar developer helps with the clean-up and restoration costs.
The project helps Vermont meet its renewable energy goals.
It’s a win-win-win.
As the spring construction season fast approaches, I’ve been thinking back to that Elizabeth Mine event, as well as forward to some of the other great reuse and redevelopment projects taking place around the State, and the opportunities these projects present for accomplishing positive environmental and human health impacts, advancing sound land-use practices, supporting sustainable development trends and promoting community and economic growth.
One example of the types of exciting projects that will take place in the coming months is the revitalization of the Putnam Hotel and surrounding block in downtown Bennington. This redevelopment project is community-led and is drawing in investments from local and civic leaders, the state, federal government, and key tenants to invigorate historic downtown buildings that are currently underutilized.
The impact of this sort of redevelopment project goes well beyond investments in creating vibrant downtowns. It is also essential to help support the continued vitality of our existing city and village centers, prevent sprawl, and protect important natural resources.
Too often we think in terms of black and white – like the most sustainable way to live on the landscape is to not make new things. As the State official leading the agency charged with protecting our natural resources, I am no exception to falling into this mode of thinking from time to time. So it’s both important and wonderful to celebrate these examples – and others like them – of the right project, in the right place that is able to reinvigorate underutilized or derelict sites.
Julie Moore is the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state agency with primary responsibility for protecting and sustaining Vermont’s environment, natural resources, wildlife and forests, and for maintaining Vermont’s beloved state parks. Moore was named to that position by Governor Phil Scott in January 2017. Moore currently resides in Middlesex with her husband, Aaron, and their two children.