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Champions of Champlain make polluters come clean

By Liz MutherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1982

Peripatetic New Yorkers flock to the shores of beautiful Lake George. And New England's vacationers, with long-established loyalties, seek the salt flavors of their own seaboard communities.

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But sometimes neglected are the sparkling, expansive waters of Lake Champlain. Scene of the pre-Revolutionary War boundary disputes of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, for ages this long border lake has been striking for its pristine beauty and purity.

Two hundred years after that band of patriots roamed, another group of vigilants -- the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC) -- is out to keep the lake that way.

Here along the shores of this inland sea -- it reaches over 120 miles from Quebec deep into Vermont and New York -- a company of environmental patriots has staged a stunning series of environmental dramas over the past 19 years. Founded in 1963 when the lake was about to be dredged as a major inland seaway, the committee's defense victories have gone largely unobserved. But they have included fighting off the omnipresent threat of pollution as well as projects that could permanently alter the lake's face.

The final curtain on this two-decade environmental stage-show hasn't been rung down yet. But in a recent annual report to its approximately 1,300 members, Committee Executive Secretary Anne Baker described what the lake might look like today if it had not been for the prodigious labors of committee workers:

Huge oceangoing vessels might be spewing waste from their bilges; barges could be spilling thousands of irretrievable gallons of No. 2 heating fuel into the lake (with no contingency cleanup plans); major cities might be pouring untreated sewage into the water; and a nuclear power plant could be pumping thermal waste water into the lake.

Ms. Baker's reminder that the committee had been instrumental in meeting these terrible threats was not so much a pat on the back to members as a spur to persist into the '80s.

Last summer off the cow banks just above Sand Bar Bridge near the lake's South Hero Island, fishermen enjoyed the best run of landlocked salmon since a fish restoration project began several years ago. The lake trout near Keeler's Bay and Savage Island were abundant last season, too.

And above clumps of wild geranium and purple loosestrife, rare songbirds freely soar from red oaks to pin cherries.

The fact that Lake Champlain is largely free of industrial and chemical pollutants is no accident, said Montgomery Fischer, present committee cochairman. In 1963, the International Joint Commission (IJC), a six-member board of advisers on transboundary water issues from the United States and Canada (three from each country), was about to endorse plans to make Lake Champlain a major inland seaway.

Concerned about damage to the lake environment, groups of citizens from the Vermont and New York sides of the lake banded together to do an independent environmental cost-benefit analysis of the proposal.

The testimony of this unified group was powerful. With a motto, ''Progress Without Pollution,'' the newly formed, nonprofit Lake Champlain Committee was able to demonstrate that the explicit, quantifiable costs of the seaway far outweighed the possible benefits of the project.

This vocal ''no'' to the quick and ultimately costly commercialization of the lake, together with the citizens' vow to remain unified as a committee to protect the lake, marked a turning point in the history of environmentalism. The fact that the group had raised its funds entirely from private membership gave it a unique impartiality. Its evenhanded pro-progress approach enabled it to testify without extremism at public meetings and before the IJC.

This first victory was just the beginning.

Three years later, when confronted with the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation's tentative plans to build a 1 million-kilowatt nuclear power plant on the eastern shores of the lake, the LCC acted with characteristic moderation. Its statement, the result of two years of study, was not patently antinuclear: ''The Committee is not opposed to atomic power. We do believe that the headlong rush into atomic power has left many problems unresolved and that the current regulatory structure dominated by the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) is inadequate to protect the environment from a technology which remains in its infancy. . . .''