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A question of VPIRG’s conflicts

I applaud the creation of the state of Vermont’s first-ever Ethics Commission.

The first complaint before the Ethics Commission was filed by Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. There is a bit of irony here: Burns needs to look no further than his own organization to find conflicts of interest.

A sizable amount of money pours into VPIRG’s coffers annually from big energy developers and the foundations they support. Several of these energy developers sat on VPIRG’s board of directors and helped to lobby state lawmakers to draft the bills, pass them through the Legislature, and streamline the permit process for the businesses from which they now profit.

In VPIRG’s latest annual report there was a $2.5 million budget. The organization is divided into two parts: A 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt portion and a 501(c)(4) non-tax-exempt portion. The nonprofit received $647,000 from donors. The bulk of the money, $1.25 million, went to the non-tax-exempt half, which is run more like a corporation. This money pays for lobbyists, political influence, and 16 full-time workers plus temporary staff.

During legislative sessions and public hearings with energy siting commissions, VPIRG’s paid lobbyists and Executive Director Paul Burns opposed communities having a say in local energy projects. Although they now try to take credit for Act 174, the new energy siting bill, VPIRG tried to derail the bill every step of the process, and they helped weaken it.

VPIRG also denied there were any noise issues with industrial scale wind projects, ignoring or dismissing people who testified that they could no longer live in their homes near these projects. (The Department of Public Service had an independent consultant record noise levels, who reported earlier this month that noise levels as much as 5 decibels louder than the standard permitted in the certificate for public good issued for the project). VPIRG Climate & Energy Director Ben Walsh stated VPIRG opposed any sound monitoring because “that could cost us hundreds of thousands annually, even if no violation happens.” (Barton Chronicle, 4/4/2016). Who is “us”? VPIRG or the energy developers or both?

VPIRG’s latest performance, trying to block standards meant to protect the public, was in 2017 front of the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules whose sole job was to make sure new laws meet the rule of intent. New sound standards were formulated by the Public Service Board and the Department of Public Service to try to solve some of the noise disturbances next to industrial wind power projects so people could have better living conditions. VPIRG’s staff, along with other energy lobbyists, huddled with Sen. Ginny Lyons who would repeatedly get up in the middle of hearings to get instructions and pass notes as some of the committee members read from their script. They insisted on scrapping the standards, in support of industrial developers, rather than protect people’s welfare and stay true to their mission statement.

Meanwhile, VPIRG’s bottom line seems to be doing the bidding of their financial supporters, at least when it comes to energy and the environmental impacts, as little attention is paid to wildlife and habitat destruction and toxic herbicide spraying at the Lowell Mountain wind project, bear habitat destruction near the Aiken Wilderness Area (Deerfield Wind Project), and the degradation of water quality; clear-cut/blasted and torn up landscape (Nextera Solar Project in Ludlow). VPIRG and some members of its board have had cozy ties with big-money industrial developers who would directly benefit from VPIRG’s lobbying efforts.

Burns was recently quoted as saying the state code of ethics exists to prevent the perception of conflict. I suggest VPIRG consider engaging in some serious self-reflection on the topic.

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Keith Ballek, of Sheffield, who is a member of the Northern Vermont Development Association, chair of his town’s Democratic Committee, and is a delegate to the State Democratic Committee. He is a longtime activist on environmental and social justice issues.