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State restricts composting center on sacred land

BURLINGTON, Vt. - A composting business that has been running without a permit on land that is replete with American Indian archaeological sites has been ordered to curtail operations while it seeks state approval to continue.

The state's Natural Resources Board issued a stipulated order to the Intervale Center on Aug. 6, limiting the composting operation to only part of its approximately 19-acre site. The company is not to place more than 4,000 cubic yards of composting material anywhere, use any heavy equipment without the approval of the Division of Historic Preservation, or discharge any of the leachate from its two holding ponds without the authorization of the Agency of Natural Resources while it seeks a land use permit that lays out 10 criteria that a development project must meet, including water pollution, erosion, protection of wetlands and historical resources.

The Intervale Center is a nonprofit organization with 354 acres of farmland, nursery, trails, wildlife corridors and compost production along the Winooski River. Its mission statement is, ''To develop farm-and land-based enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources,'' according to its Web site.

But Judy Dow, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs who brought the permit-less operation the attention of various state agencies, said the Intervale Center is not only operating with a permit, but doing so on land that is sacred to her Abenaki ancestors and unlawfully discharging leachate.

The land where the Intervale Center operates is a pasahana - a long narrow valley that runs east and west - and it is part of the Wabanaki creation story for the Western Abenaki peoples, Dow said. The Western Abenakis, together with the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Penobscot Indian of Maine comprised the Wabanaki Confederacy.

''This land is the common pot, the place where people have returned to for many, many generations for the nuts, berries and other food sources. It is also the place that the deer have returned to for the same reason, providing hides to clothe the peoples who inhabit this land. This is the place where the circle of life can readily be seen. This land is sacred to the Abenaki peoples living in the areas surrounding Burlington, Colchester and Winooski. It is the place where stories are held of burying ancestors and returning year after year to lay down sacred plants and pray,'' Dow said.

The land's stories are not only from the past, Dow said. ''The Indians still return every year to gift the land and pray for the ancestors' peaceful rest,'' Dow said.

''It's a place where we estimate thousands and thousands of our ancestors are buried,'' Dow said.

Dow said she became more and more alarmed as she watched the composting project spread over the past several years. She has taken more than 1,000 photographs documenting the operation, including discharges of liquids from the compost piles.

The commission has backed Dow's attempts to bring attention to the situation over the past year.

''After meeting with Intervale staff in September 2006 and providing them with documented archaeological evidence, there has been continued development of the land. The Intervale Center issue is truly a horrid example of greed, power and a disregard for Mother Earth,'' said Commission Chairman Mark Mitchell.

According to state archaeologist Scott Dillon, the land is ''one of the most archaeologically rich areas in all of Vermont,'' containing several ''significant archaeological sites,'' including one that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The sites range in age from the Late Archaic period to the Late Woodland period, circa 4000 B.C. to A.D. 1600, and have yielded both prehistoric and historic Euro-American artifacts, including evidence of human remains.

Holly Rae Taylor, whose title at the Intervale Center is ''general manager/compost maven,'' said she has ''become aware'' of the ancestral burial site.

''We're cooperating in every possible way with the [stipulated] order, absolutely, we're very cooperative,'' Taylor said.

Taylor denied that the company had discharged leachates into wetlands or the river.

''That's not true. There's a misunderstanding of what's going on here. We don't discharge into anything but our compost piles. We just compost it,'' Taylor said.

That's technically true, according to Peter Keibel, the director of the Natural Resources Board.

''They haven't discharged directly into wetlands or streams. They discharged onto a field that then flowed into a wetland and then into the river,'' Keibel said.

Keibel said the center had not applied for an Act 250 permit when it started almost 20 years ago because the owners weren't aware they needed one, but they will have to go through the process now.

When asked how much weight is given to the Indian sites, Keibel said, ''They have to show no impact on historic sites.''

The center will conduct an archaeological survey at their expense with professionals approved by the state, Keibel said.

The application process usually involves a public hearing if a project is large, controversial or opposed.

''I suspect this one will have a public hearing,'' Keibel said.