Water Pollution Control in Vermont: A System of Effluent Charges

In the final hours of a three month session, Vermont’s legislature adopted a water pollution control law which imposes fees on polluters. Control of water pollution has been a popular issue in Vermont-its first comprehensive laws on the subject were passed in 1949 -and this new legislation is designed to be a major step toward upgrading much of that state’s water resources. Increasing industrial and municipal water use has resulted in such widespread pollution that the traditional private law of riparian rights provides an inadequate remedy to the problem of unclean water. Consequently, state intervention has become essential to the maintenance of high water quality. There are several approaches a state may take to control water quality. The conventional method is direct state regulation of stream standards, enforced through effluent standards: The state sets quality standards for specific bodies of water and then regulates or prohibits the discharge of waste effluents in order to maintain the standards. A second method of state control employs the same water quality standards, but does not regulate or prohibit waste discharge. Instead of direct control, a fee is assessed, calculated so that it will be an incentive to the polluter to reduce its discharge of waste to a point where the water quality will rise to the desired level. Each polluter is charged according to the amount of effluent he discharges into the water. This is a system of stream standards enforced by effluent charges. A third system, also based on effluent charges, does not set a specific standard for water quality; rather, effluent charges are assessed solely on the basis of the damage the discharged waste inflicts upon subsequent users. The rationale underlying this approach is that charging the producer for the damage he causes will result in the most economically efficient allocation of resources. This third approach, however, is made impossible under federal law which requires either the states or the federal government to establish stream standards for all interstate waters.