MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin’s pick to run the Vermont Natural Resources Board drew criticism Monday from environmental advocates who accused him of championing a wind project they said will degrade trout streams.
Ronald Shems, 51, of Moretown, a private-practice lawyer and former assistant state attorney general who specializes in environmental and energy law, was selected by Shumlin for the $90,000-a-year job as the board’s chairman.
In private practice, Shems represented – among other clients – First Wind, a Boston company now building a wind project in Sheffield. The $90 million project, which started construction last fall, will erect 16 wind turbines on a Northeast Kingdom ridge. It has been fought by some residents, some of whom claim sediment disturbed by construction will harm six nearby trout streams.
Shems, a partner in the Burlington firm Shems Dunkiel Raubvogel & Saunders, said he was representing the interests of his client, not making policy decisions, in that role.
Vermonters for a Clean Environment Executive Director Annette Smith said placing Shems in charge of Vermont’s water resources is like the fox guarding the hen house, given his work on the Sheffield Wind project, which has been approved but now is the subject of a challenge involving a stormwater permit issued by the state.
“There he was advocating against protective water-quality standards for high-elevation streams,” Smith said. “Now, he will be in charge of the rulemaking over water quality. This is extremely disturbing news for people who care about our water quality. It appears to be a conflict of interest.”
“He argued at every turn for the formula-based approach that was proposed by First Wind and turned out to be rubber-stamped by the Department of Environmental Conservation for the (Agency of Natural Resources),” said Paul Brouha, 65, of Sutton, whose land is adjacent to the Sheffield Wind project. “As Natural Resources Board chairman, you can expect that would be something he’ll continue to weigh in on.”
Shems said he’s cutting his ties to his Burlington law firm, and he’ll recuse himself as Natural Resources Board chairman from any case in which he had an interest as a private attorney.
He said First Wind had obtained all the approvals necessary for its water-quality permits and won’t cause problems for trout streams or any other body of water.
“I feel fully capable of assuring that Vermont sticks by its very important environmental standards,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.
He’s not the first Shumlin appointee to face conflict-of-interest allegations.
The Democratic governor’s choice for commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, David Mears, sent a memo to his staff last month outlining the matters over which he will recuse himself because of former ties during his time as a law professor and head of the environmental law clinic at Vermont Law School.
“Whenever you bring someone in of his caliber, there will be matters he was involved with that will give rise to conflicts,” said Deb Markowitz, secretary of the state Agency of Natural Resources, which oversees the board. “The key is to be aware of them and make sure he’s not participating. And we’ve done that.”
She said Shumlin administration officials had spent time with Shems to review cases he’s been involved with and to build the necessary walls insulating him from them in his new job.