Why is the Douglas administration trying to shut down Vermont Compost? The Montpelier small business provides jobs, low-cost processing of food waste, more than 1,000 dozen eggs every month, and high-quality compost and soil products that are in demand both in state and as far away as the Midwest.

State regulations on composting are unclear and confusing, and this year’s Act 130 was crafted to give existing composting facilities some breathing room while the regulations were clarified. Yet the Natural Resources Board, which serves at the pleasure of the governor, has ordered Vermont Compost to close its doors and pay an $18,000 fine. The stated reason is because Vermont Compost doesn’t have an Act 250 permit for some buildings used in the composting.

The case has a lot of legal minutiae and maneuverings. Bill McKibben put them into perspective when he called one of my radio shows last month:

“The real question is the incredible folly of undermining one of our most important resources in Vermont, our future soil fertility. That’s what compost is all about.

“I’m watching various arms of the Douglas administration engage in the most short-sighted, foolish acts against what are precious operations. We’ve got to be encouraging this stuff, not shutting it down or limiting it. The Agency of Natural Resources and Agency of Agriculture should be sending as many young people and others in the state as we can to Vermont Compost, so other people can learn to do all the things Karl Hammer is pulling off, just as the Intervale is the first place we take visitors in Vermont to show what we’re capable of.”

I’m sympathetic to McKibben’s argument. Vermont Compost’s operations are important to me personally. The eggs in my breakfast pancakes come from Vermont Compost’s free-range hens. The soil in my greenhouse, which provides our family with greens from early spring to late fall — and through the winter some years — was mixed at Vermont Compost from their compost.

Medium-scale composting facilities like Vermont Compost are closely linked to Vermont’s energy use, too. Vermont imports nutrients on trucks and rail in the form of food, feed and fertilizer. All of these take large amounts of energy to produce in distant places. Since food in the United States takes 10 times as many calories of fossil fuel energy to get to the table as it contains, many people say we’re eating fossil fuels. Some connections to energy are more direct; nitrogen fertilizer is literally made from natural gas.

Every ton of food scraps sent to Vermont Compost is a ton that isn’t sent to the landfill in Coventry, 70 miles away. There’s a direct energy savings. The fertility that Vermont Compost captures in its compost products means less fertilizer needs to be produced and imported into Vermont. And Vermont Compost pulls off a feat that may be unparalleled in U.S. egg production: They raise laying chickens without grain. The chickens find enough nutrition in the food scraps plus by-products of the composting, like the bugs that thrive in the compost ecosystem.

In a grain- and energy-short world, with increasing amounts of farmland being diverted to producing liquid fuels, that’s an important accomplishment. McKibben is right: Vermont could be building a small industry around teaching others how to farm this way. Our taxpayer dollars are already invested in the experiment. When Vermont Compost began experimenting with grain-free egg production, Howard Dean’s Agency of Natural Resources saw the potential and gave the company $15,000 to learn how to do it.

It’s also just plain fun watching chickens enjoy themselves in the open air. I get a special kick out of watching chickens ride on the blade of the Bobcats as they turn the compost. As the Bobcat pulls back from the newly turned compost, the chickens pounce on the grubs exposed, with much flapping of wings and excited clucking.

What’s not to love about Vermont Compost?

Well, if you’re a neighbor, like Barb LaRosa, there are the food scraps that crows carry to her lawn and drop on it. Neighbor Deb Glottman has a similar issue, and adds that she hears the guard dogs barking in the middle of the night.

Barb and Steven LaRosa purchased their house next to Vermont Compost after the company had already filed plans with the city of Montpelier to expand to its current size. Now they have triggered the process that brought the Act 250 bureaucracy into play to shut down the operation. (The LaRosas are currently in mediation with Vermont Compost through the Capital City Justice Center.)

Act 250 specifically exempts agricultural activity from its oversight. The crafters of the legislation recognized that farming is an important activity in Vermont. When Act 250 was enacted in 1970, people were already moving into the countryside into houses next to farms. Their city expectations sometimes clashed with the lowing cattle, crowing roosters, smell of manure, late-night driving of tractors and other farming activities. Michael Duane, who worked on agricultural issues as assistant attorney general for 10 years, commented at a workshop earlier this year, “Everyone loves living next to a farm. A lot of people don’t like living next to farming.”

Vermont Compost is a farm, says Karl Hammer, its president. If so, it’s exempt from Act 250 regulation, though a host of other rules apply to it.

The District Environmental Commission agrees that much of what Vermont Compost does is farming, including the egg production. They also agree that composting can be considered to be farming. But the DEC, in response to complaints from the LaRosas, opined that some buildings constructed at the Montpelier site of Vermont Compost were commercial, not agricultural, because the majority of the compost mixed there came from another Vermont Compost site, five miles away in East Montpelier.

Vermont’s agricultural and environmental regulations were not written with composting in mind, so many strange results can be read out of them and how they’re interpreted. For example, if a composting operation buys a lot of straw from someone else to use as a bulking agent in the compost mix, that’s considered an off-farm input. However, if the composter first uses the straw as bedding for animals before mixing it into the compost, the straw is no longer an off-farm input.

In April, the Composting Association of Vermont held the first of three stakeholder workshops to identify such weirdness in current Vermont regulations and make recommendations for changing the regulations in a way that promotes appropriate-scale composting while protecting the environment and public health. The workshop leaders asked the participants to consider three hypothetical composting operations and describe what regulations applied to them. All the stakeholders agreed that the rules were unclear and contradictory for those operations.

All the stakeholders except the Natural Resources Board, that is. NRB general counsel John Hasen merely gave a brief statement at the beginning of the meeting and left before the exercise began, and no one else at the NRB participated in any of the meetings. Pat O’Neill, who organized the workshops for the Composting Association of Vermont, said, “We tried repeatedly to get the NRB to participate.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature was working to give some regulatory breathing space to composting operations. They passed, and Gov. James Douglas signed, Act 130, which contained a two-year moratorium on enforcement against composting operations that were continuing their previous activities. During the course of drafting the bill, a provision was slipped in that exempted Vermont Compost from the moratorium. Karl Hammer says he tried repeatedly to get legislators to write his operations back into the moratorium and was assured that it would be taken care of in conference committee. There was no conference committee on the bill.

Vermont Compost had appealed the ruling that parts of its operations were subject to Act 250, and that appeal is at the Environmental Court. In a surprise move, the NRB did not wait for the court’s decision, and they ordered Vermont Compost to shut down in early July and pay a fine of $18,000. The reason? Their order contained no allegations of pollution or disturbance of neighbors or anything; the NRB was shutting down a business because they didn’t have a building permit.

When state Senator Mark MacDonald heard me talking with Vermont Compost’s Karl Hammer on a radio show, he stopped his car to call in and express his surprise that the Douglas administration had ordered Vermont Compost to close down merely for lack of a building permit. He is on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which crafted the moratorium, and he said, “If there’s a pollution issue that’s been documented, a court would have to look at the merits. If it’s simply a paperwork thing, then I would say it violates the spirit.”

NRB general counsel Hasen listened to the radio show and afterward agreed with MacDonald that the spirit of the law was to exempt Vermont Compost from Act 250 enforcement. “My problem is,” he said, “I’m an attorney, and I have to enforce the letter of the law.”

Sen. Virginia Lyons, chair of the Natural Resources Committee, disagrees. “While the DEC’s jurisdictional opinion is under appeal,” she said, “the NRB has no business enforcing anything.”

Karl Hammer continues his mission of feeding the soil and providing eggs to what he calls the Barre-Montpelier “eggshed.” But he’s getting tired of fighting neighbors and the state. He even offered to sell his business to a columnist with no previous composting experience outside the garden!

Act 130 specifies that the Agency of Natural Resources, the NRB, and the Agency of Agriculture “should work together to protect the environment, assure the continued viability of composting facilities in the state, assure continued composting on farms, and assure that the goals of this section are accomplished.” It’s not clear to me that they’re doing that. If Vermont loses good farmers like Karl Hammer by regulating them to death, we’ll all be poorer for it.

Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts radio shows on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield and WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AM, Waterbury. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont(at)yahoo.com.