Unanimous Vermont Supreme Court Hands Clean Water Advocates an Important Win

Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic Represented Vermont Natural Resource Council and Vermont Council of Trout Unlimited in the Appeal

Earlier today, the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously reversed a lower court decision that would have severely restricted Vermont’s ability to protect water quality. The case stems from a decision by the Agency of Natural Resources to condition the re-licensing of the Morrisville Hydroelectric Project on higher flows necessary to protect aquatic habitat for brook trout, rainbow trout, and other vulnerable species. The Clean Water Act authorizes states to “certify” that projects like Morrisville, which are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (or FERC), will meet state water quality standards. ANR used this authority to impose conditions on the FERC license to ensure compliance with standards designed to protect high quality aquatic habitat. The Environmental Division of the Superior Court sided with the dam operator and struck down the conditions, ruling that hydropower takes precedence over fish habitat. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated ANR's conditions. The court's decision sets a strong precedent for future dam relicensing in Vermont and elsewhere.  

Jim Murphy, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation and now leads the Environmental Advocacy Clinic as of August 2019, praised the ruling. “This is a major victory,” he said. “The lower court’s decision would have robbed the state of the power to protect the state's clean water and healthy streams.”  He added, “It’s a great example of the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Advocacy Clinic working toward the shared goals of environmental protection and public advocacy.”

Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic (formerly the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic) represented the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Vermont Chapter of Trout Unlimited in the appeal. Students at the EAC contributed more than 90 hours of work in case.

 For more information, see the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at www.vermontlaw.edu.