By MICHAEL FRETT
BURLINGTON – Plans to sink a century-old ferry near Burlington Bay have been met with pushback from lawmakers and conservation groups concerned the ship’s scuttling could damage Lake Champlain.
Officials have publicly weighed sinking the M/V Adirondack in lieu of simply scrapping the retired ferry for at least a year now, first announcing in early 2020 a proposal to strip the boat of most of its known pollutants and fully submerging the Adirondack as a potential diving site near Burlington’s waterfront.
After sinking, ownership of the Adirondack, retired in late 2019 from the Lake Champlain Transportation Company’s ferry fleet connecting Vermont and New York over Lake Champlain, would be transferred to the state’s historic preservation division and added to Vermont’s underwater historic preserves.
The Lake Champlain Transportation Company would cover costs for scuttling the retired ferry.
While the state’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued the requisite permit for scuttling the Adirondack, the plan has since drawn backlash from environmental groups and lawmakers concerned that the Adirondack’s sinking is not worth the risk of further polluting Lake Champlain.
A letter signed by environmental groups like the Lake Champlain Committee, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Vermont Natural Resources Council charged that there was still a lack of information regarding the scuttling’s possible affects to Lake Champlain and local wildlife.
Conservationists also stressed the precedent intentionally sinking the Adirondack could set for other boat owners on Lake Champlain and suggested more work was needed to guarantee that, once submerged, the Adirondack’s hull would not impede navigation through Burlington Bay.
The organizations’ letter primarily cited concerns with lead and polychlorinated biphenyls, a class of chemicals better known by their acronym “PCBs” that saw widespread use in industrial products during the 1900s and have since been connected to cancers and other serious health issues.
“While we understand that there are good faith efforts to remove PCBs and other known contaminants from the boat, we question the wisdom of intentionally sinking such an object into lake sediments for the rest of time,” the Lake Champlain Committee’s Lauren Sopher told lawmakers earlier this month.
According to state officials, most potential sources for pollution will be removed from the Adirondack by the time of its scheduled sinking. Leftover sources for pollution, like unscraped paint in harder-to-reach parts of the hull, are expected to sit well within federal standards for the presence of PCBs.
Those preparations would be made, per Vermont’s DEC, in accordance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s best management practices for voluntarily sinking ships as artificial habitats or for preservation, a practice otherwise known as “reefing.”
“At this time, we know what the Adirondack is built of, we know how those materials interact with the environment [and] the materials of concern have been addressed, and therefore we do not anticipate there will be any issues,” Oliver Pierson, a DEC program manager, told lawmakers.
Concerns with lead and PCBs are not new for the Lake Champlain area. Both New York and Vermont have issued fish consumption advisories in the past due in part to PCBs, and, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program, lead has historically been a concern for the lake’s waterfowl populations.
Several members of the Vermont Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources and Energy appeared to share conservationists’ concerns when they first heard of the Adirondack’s proposed scuttling earlier this month, with several asking whether legislators would be able to prevent the boat’s sinking.
“I’m troubled by the contamination possibilities,” Sen. Richard McCormack, a Windsor County Democrat on the senate’s natural resources committee, said during an early April committee hearing.
“I’m aware that the project, as studied, conforms with various standards of acceptable levels of things like PCBs,” he said, “but we have a fairly disturbing history of what is acceptable changing over time.”
Other members, like Bennington County Democrat Sen. Brian Campion, questioned whether the Adirondack had enough historical value to warrant its preservation and stressed that, as a dive site, the Adirondack would likely only serve the few Vermonters who could afford diving recreationally.
“It sounds like this would in some ways benefit only a very small, dare I say, ‘well-to-do’ part of society – people that can afford to go down and really examine and benefit from this,” Campion said.
At the moment, it is unclear whether Vermont’s legislature could revoke an already granted permit for the Adirondack’s scuttling. A memo from one of the legislature’s attorneys Michael O’Grady suggested revoking an awarded permit could invite “separation of powers issues” for Vermont’s government.
“The General Assembly has exclusive authority to make the law, whereas the authority to execute that law is the executive power,” O’Grady wrote. “A legislative act prohibiting the issuance of a permit or revoking a permit under permit authority delegated to an executive branch agency could raise issues of the General Assembly attempting to exercise execution of the law.”
The Senate’s natural resources committee was scheduled to revisit the Adirondack’s planned scuttling on Wednesday, according to the committee’s agenda for this coming week.
First launched in 1913, the Adirondack came to Lake Champlain in 1954 and served as a prominent member of the Lake Champlain Transportation Company’s ferrying fleet until its retirement in 2019. The ferry spent most of that time servicing the company’s route between Burlington and Port Kent, N.Y.
By the time of its 2020 retirement, the Adirondack was the oldest continuously operated ferry of its kind in the U.S.
Last week, the Lake Champlain Transportation Company’s John Paul told legislators that the proposal to scuttle the Adirondack came amid plans to retire the century-old ferry as well as its historic route between Burlington and Port Kent amid high operating costs and dwindling ridership for that route.
Once sunk, the Adirondack would be the eleventh ship listed in Vermont’s underwater historic preserves, a list of protected shipwrecks dating back to the 1800s that, according to Vermont’s historic preservation division, typically draws around 600 divers annually to Lake Champlain.
While scrapping the historic ferry would ultimately be cheaper, Paul told legislators the company hoped that, by reefing the Adirondack in Burlington Bay and adding it to Lake Champlain’s underwater preserves, the ferry’s career on Lake Champlain could be preserved in some form.
“Scrapping is a lot cheaper,” Paul said, “but the company does want this to live on.”