Helping Clean Vermont’s Waters Through Laziness and Drinking

Doing my civic duty over here. (File photo)

As a mid-July heat wave hit Vermont, beaches closed in Burlington — the state’s most populous city – because of potentially toxic blooms of cyanobacteria (also known by the misnomer blue-green algae).

This is a problem, and if you live in Vermont, you can contribute to the solution with a very minor change in your regular routine.

Algae blooms have been happening for years. The state and federal government have been trying to address the issue for almost as long. We have access to really interesting science and computer modeling that can help target the biggest sources of Phosphorus, which is what causes the blooms.

We know what to do, but as with so many things in Vermont state government, we’ve chronically underfunded the solutions. To give credit where it’s due, legislators in the past five years have made major advances in bringing new streams of money to help clean up the water. But we could always do more, and it turns out many Vermonters can do more by doing less.

If you regularly bring bottles and cans to a redemption center to claim the five-cent deposits for those containers, stop doing that and put those containers into the regular recycling instead.

Here it is, Vermont: If you regularly bring bottles and cans to a redemption center to claim the five-cent deposits for those containers, stop doing that and put those containers into the regular recycling instead. Those nickels will automatically be dedicated to water quality.

That’s because one of the first moves by state lawmakers as they tried to scrape together money for clean water was to dedicate all of the unclaimed bottle and can deposits to Vermont’s clean water fund.

Those deposits were never meant to raise revenue for the state, they’re just the byproduct of an environmental law designed to increase recycling. As a result, that funding stream for clean water has been relatively small. But let’s crunch some numbers.

In my past life as a reporter, I wrote about a University of Vermont study that found that 65 percent of Vermont’s population is willing to pay at least $40 per year for water quality. (This was in 2014, so I can’t speak to how this has changed since.) Based on the U.S. Census’ latest estimate of Vermont’s population (623,989), that would be more than 400,000 people paying $40, which raises north of $16 million. To readers outside Vermont, that might sound like chump change in a government budget, but that’s a big annual jump to our water funding, and state funds can often be leveraged to unlock more federal funds as well. In other words, that could really put a dent in Vermont’s water problem.

If 65 percent of Vermont’s population drank a six-pack every week for a year, each person would put down $15.60 and the state would have another $6+ million to dedicate to clean water.

The UVM study was theoretical, because there isn’t some hotline Vermonters can call and give their credit card number to pay for water quality. But we actually can deposit to the clean water fund — pun obnoxiously intended — five cents at a time. As long as the cans are still being recycled, the only cost is the five cent deposit you give up.

For a person to generate $40 of income annually for the clean water fund, it would take about $0.77 per week — slightly more than 15 bottle deposits a week. That’s probably too many drinks to count on, but we can still tone it down and make a huge difference without incurring diabetes or day-drinking. If 65 percent of Vermont’s population drank a six-pack every week for a year, each person would put down $15.60 and the state would have another $6+ million to dedicate to clean water.

So you can be lazier — tossing your (rinsed out!) bottles and cans into the recycling, saving yourself a trip to the redemption center — and you’ll be doing more to help clean waterways in Vermont.

There are plenty of things you can do, too, if you’re feeling less lazy. Check out for some great local resources on clean water in Lake Champlain. (For the record, I’m not affiliated with them.)

Disclaimer: I used to live in Burlington, where people regularly go through recycling that’s been left on the curb to get the returnables out so they can claim the money to support themselves and their families. This post is not a suggestion that no cans should be returned, or that people who need to claim that money are somehow in the wrong. My goal is only to help Vermonters make more informed choices.


Boston bombing and Watertown manhunt

A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.
A Boston SWAT officer spoke with a passerby near Boston Gardens.

I live four blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, so I heard the bombs go off on Monday, April 15, 2013. A few minutes later, I was outside taking photos. I wrote for Medium about the experience of walking through Boston as it went from a city in celebration to something out of a movie; SWAT teams, Army National Guard troops on Boston Common and non-stop sirens. For Thursday, I wrote my column in The Huntington News about the bombings and the city in mourning Boston had become.

I was interviewed by BBC World News and Vermont’s Fox 44 about the day’s events, and one of my professors, Dan Kennedy, featured my post in a roundup of writing about the attack. My coverage on Twitter in the hours immediately after the explosions got the attention of Mark Fischetti, who wrote a post about the value of social media during breaking news events. Meg Heckman, a graduate student at Northeastern who I’ve had the pleasure of working with this semester, wrote about the “Golden Hour” of news and the potential Medium has to become a haven for the photo/essay style of my post there.

Then, on Thursday night, news broke of a shooting at MIT, just across the river from my apartment. I grabbed my phone and ran over the bridge, where I met up with Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico, an MIT professor of science writing and a breaking news photographer, respectively. I knew both from Twitter, but hadn’t met either. We were standing behind the police tape chatting when a group of police cars sped away from the scene. The three of us hopped into Seth’s car and followed. We ended up being the first reporters on the scene in Watertown, arriving minutes after a gun fight between the Tsarnaev brothers – ultimately named as suspects in Monday’s bombing – and police. I wrote my account of the night for Medium. Seth Mnookin wrote about the scene in Watertown for The New Yorker. Brian D’Amico published his photos on Flickr.

In my home state of Vermont, the Burlington Free Press’ Matt Ryan wrote a story about the adventure. The paper also published some of my iPhone photos from the night. My former editor, Anne Galloway of, also wrote a story on the experience. I had the privilege of speaking with David Kroll’s newswriting class down at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. as well.

A year after Irene, a family’s livelihood still in ruins

On assignment for, I went to Stockbridge, Vt. last week to see the White River Valley Campground, which was almost completely destroyed when Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont late August, 2011. Here’s that story.

Rebecca Smith can’t stand the sound of rushing water.

On Tuesday it will be a year since floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene swept away much of the campground she ran with her husband, Drew, just off Route 107 in Gaysville, a village in the town of Stockbridge.

Rebecca nearly drowned as she escaped the high water that engulfed their 22-acre property within a matter of minutes.

This week as she stood in the barren floodplain of the White River among rocks – most of them far too large to have come from the campground fire pits the floodwaters washed away – she describes how she heard the boulders knocking against each other as the river, now quietly running through a shallow bed of sand and stone, raged on that Sunday night a year ago.

Read the rest on

An investigation of Taser use by the Vermont State Police

Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a "life partner," holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs
Ariana Davidonis, whose mother Theresa considered Macadam Mason a “life partner,” holds up a painting by Mason, who died after a Vermont State Police officer tased him June 20. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

After the June 20 death of a 39-year-old Vermont artist after he was tased by a Vermont State Police officer, I wrote a series and conducted an investigation of all incidents of Taser use by the Vermont State Police since the general uniform division was equipped with the weapons in 2011.

Here are those stories (the culmination of my 5-week investigation is the final story on this post):

After a three-hour standoff, Shaffer ordered Mason to lay face down on the ground in an attempt to take him into protective custody. Noticing Mason was unarmed, Shaffer lowered his patrol rifle and drew his Taser X-26, L’Esperance said. Mason, who L’Esperance described as being 6 feet tall and 195 pounds, began yelling and moving towards Shaffer, who began to fear for his safety and activated the Taser. Its electrical probes landed in Mason’s chest.

Read more.

Artwork spills out of the small home on a dirt road a couple miles outside Thetford Center, where Theresa and Ariana Davidonis live. A wooden archway stands in front of the vinyl-sided home at the beginning of a stone path around the house to a patio, furnished with a small wooden table. Inside, a painting sits unfinished.

The archway, the table, the stone path, the patio the painting — all were created by Macadam Mason.

Another archway stands at the back edge of the patio, feet from where Mason was standing when Vermont State Police Trooper David Shaffer triggered his Taser Wednesday evening, striking Mason in the chest. Loved ones watched from a large picture window on the side of the house as Shaffer, and subsequently, EMTs, tried to revive Mason. Despite their attempts, Mason was declared dead upon arrival at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Read more.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Shumlin defended state police, calling questions from the press about the incident inappropriate.

“Listen, team: We’ve got an investigation going on and we’re not going to go into the details until they come out,” Shumlin said. “This is what I want to say: You go out there as a law enforcement officer, have someone threaten to kill you, threaten to kill other people, and then second-guess every move they make when they make them. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Asked if the Tasering of someone with a history of seizures or other health issues was questionable, Shumlin stopped a reporter mid-question.

“So what are the state police supposed to do, get a medical records check before they use a Taser?” he asked.

Read more.

The training, a product of 2004 legislation that appropriated $50,000 to enhance officers’ ability to respond to mental health crises, became mandatory in 2006, starting with the 82nd Basic Police Academy Class, officials say. Shaffer was in the 81st.

Read more.

The petition, hosted online by, a subsidiary of, was created by Morgan Brown, a citizen mental health advocate in Montpelier, after what Brown said was an unsatisfactory response from Shumlin.

“The governor basically made it clear what his position was,” Brown said. “He made his statements … and all we could do was respond, and what would have been better is … to really talk to some of the stakeholders and the different people who try to see this addressed and have a very meaningful dialogue.”

Read more.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Orange County Superior Court, Davidonis accused Shaffer of negligence, trespassing and misuse of his Taser.

Thomas Costello, a Brattleboro lawyer representing Davidonis, said the lawsuit is still in its early stages.

“We haven’t served [the state] yet,” he said. But Costello says the State Police policy on Taser use fails to properly account for subjects in mental health crisis.

Read more.

Macadam Mason was alone on June 20, and that wasn’t unusual. The 39-year-old Thetford artist often worked at home painting and sculpting while his girlfriend, Theresa Davidonis, met with clients at her nearby hair salon.

Davidonis was glad to get out of the house that Wednesday while Mason recovered from an epileptic seizure he’d had the previous day. She steered clear as she knew he could be moody and withdrawn after a seizure.

In 2011, Mason had more than 10 epileptic incidents that led to spells of temperamental behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he had been sober for three years. Despite his physical and mental challenges, Davidonis’ family described him as a “teddy bear.” He especially adored Theresa’s grandson Carter.

Under other circumstances, June 20 — Carter’s third birthday — would have been a happy occasion. Instead, on a day when the family should have been celebrating, Mason wound up dead after he was tased by state police.

It was the first death in Vermont after a police Taser deployment.

A analysis of police incident reports shows that since all troopers were issued Tasers in April 2011 (a special unit has had the devices since 2006), stun guns have been fired 33 times. Of the 53 officers who have drawn a Taser, 14 troopers have done so multiple times.

It is unclear, based on police records, how often troopers have fired stun guns on people with mental health problems and/or medical conditions.

Read more.

Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog, highlighted some of their takeaways from the story here.

Update, Sept. 30, 2012: The results of Mason’s autopsy, released by Vermont State Police this week, say Mason died because of “sudden cardiac death due to a conducted electrical weapon discharge.” Read the story on VTDigger.

A look at Campaign for Vermont

Over at VTDigger, I looked into Campaign for Vermont, a group that emerged last fall putting ads on the radio. In response, one of the founders wrote an op-ed criticizing the piece and Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont blog picked it up. Here are those three posts in part; click through to read them in full.

Why is Bruce Lisman spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘start a conversation’?

Campaign for Vermont became a player on the political scene in Vermont late last year — thanks to the largesse of a single wealthy individual and an aggressive local media advertising blitz.

But eight months since a group of prominent conservatives founded the 501(c)(4) organization, its purpose remains unclear.

What is Campaign for Vermont, and more to the point, what is the group trying to accomplish?

The founder of Campaign for Vermont, Bruce Lisman, says the organization doesn’t adhere to a political point of view, but the group has pushed for fiscally conservative ideas outside the traditional Republican Party construct.

Campaign for Vermont, through hyperlocal radio advertising, has indirectly criticized “Montpelier,” a.k.a. Democrats who hold the governor’s office and the Statehouse, for “out-of-control” state spending. It has also chastised the executive and legislative branches for not being transparent enough about the way taxpayer dollars are used by state government.

In a recent email missive to supporters, Lisman wrote that “Campaign for Vermont believes that higher property taxes, increased electric rates and a risky health care scheme will strangle a vibrant economy.”

Lisman, a native of Burlington’s North End, and a former executive with Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan, says he is trying to draw attention to the state’s financial future through a “campaign for a prosperous economy.”

Listen closely to GOP candidates such as Randy Brock, who is running for governor, and Wendy Wilton, who is making a bid for state treasurer, and familiar Campaign for Vermont themes emerge.

After months of Campaign for Vermont’s focus on “prosperity,” Brock’s media consultant Robert Wickers said in a statement that “[a]s Vermonters learn more about Randy, and hear his positive message of economic growth and prosperity, this race will tighten.” Brock and Campaign for Vermont have also criticized the growth of the budget this year (an overall rate of 6.3 percent).

In the group’s first radio advertisement, Lisman said, “It’s time to use modern technology to make Vermont state government totally transparent and accountable to every citizen.”

Wilton, at her campaign launch for treasurer, echoed that sentiment: “Information is key, but it’s the ease of that information that’s really important too. Because it’s got to be readily available, you’ve got to be able to see it and understand it, and it can’t be in some really arcane spot within the state’s website where you’d never find it even if you put it in a search function. It’s got to be somewhere where people can see it easily.”

Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, suggests that Campaign for Vermont might be a “launching pad” for a political candidate — most likely Lisman himself. Though he is the face of the organization — his portrait is on email messages and the website — Lisman has said repeatedly that he has no interest in running for office.

Kevin Ellis, a communications strategist with KSE Partners and a supporter of Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, says Campaign for Vermont is the Vermont GOP’s ad hoc messaging machine, laying the electoral groundwork for Republican Party candidates this election cycle.

He also speculates that Lisman wants to be a kingmaker. Ellis says Campaign for Vermont’s ubiquitous advertising could be a potential prelude to financing candidates in 2014 — in the event that Vermont’s campaign finance limits are knocked down in the courts.

“Sure, he may give money to candidates,” Ellis said. “But I think he is a millionaire from Wall Street who came to Vermont and wanted to be a player. Spending this money is the best and fastest way to do that. Spending this money makes him a political player, scares the heck out of Democrats and makes him the toast of the Burlington cocktail party circuit among Republicans. But that is a long, long way from playing on the varsity team against pros like Peter Shumlin, Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy. To steal a phrase from David Plouffe, those guys play chess. Lisman is still playing checkers.”

Read the rest at

Op-ed: Words and Facts Collide by Tom Pelham

Taylor Dobbs, reporting for VTDigger, might use his recent article covering Campaign for Vermont as a teachable moment about poor journalistic technique. Dobbs, a recent graduate of Montpelier High School and candidate for a BA in Journalism from Northeastern University next January, chose the easy but less informing route. He gathered up the observations and quotes from a handful of insider politicos, namely Jake Perkinson from the Vermont Democratic Party, Jack Lindley from the Vermont Republican Party, political commentator Eric Davis and Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis and presto, he had a political story to tell.

Dobbs’ slant on Campaign for Vermont is that we are not only about politics, but about Republican politics and more, about conservative Republican politics and his politically oriented but fact-challenged sources, not surprisingly, affirmed this perspective.

Dobbs does a disservice to the mission of VTDigger “to create a platform of consistent delivery of fact-driven reports on matters of public interest and to serve as a catalyst for more open debates on key issues that impact Vermonters’ daily lives” and to those seeking informed, balanced reporting rather than slant. In the same way that VPIRG and VNRC are policy-driven organizations focused largely on environmental issues, Campaign for Vermont is a policy-driven organization focused on the future prosperity of Vermont.

Questioning whether or not Campaign for Vermont, at its core, is about politics or public policy is fair game. Like Gov. Shumlin, Bruce Lisman is a wealthy individual who could mount a substantially self-funded effort for elective office. For those who primarily view the world through the prism of politics, like those interviewed for Dobbs’ article, the clear answer is that Bruce, despite his statements to the contrary, has political aspirations.

Read the rest at

And finally, the Green Mountain Daily post, Tom Pelham has a sad:

Awww, some bruised fee-fees over at Campaign for Vermont, the “nonpartisan” policy shop that’s obviously and blatantly conservative to anyone with a brain who spends five minutes reading their website or listening to their radio ads.

It seems that those dastardly folks at Vermont Digger committed an act of journalism. It took a long hard look at CFV and its founder/funder Bruce Lisman, and published a story pointing out the obvious: that CFV is conservative, that its policy positions are closely aligned with the Republicans’, that all its attacks are against the Democrats, that Lisman is spending a whole lot of money and nobody knows what his real ambitions are.

And that gave Tom Pelham a sad.

Read the rest at Green Mountain Daily

VTDigger Stories

Below is a list of the stories I wrote this summer (2011) for

VTDigger wrap up

The entrance to the VTDigger offices in Montpelier, Vt.

My first story for ran on May 11, 2011. Twelve weeks, 37 bylines, and 25,000 words later, my internship is finished.

I’m not in journalism because I aspired as a young boy to spend my mornings in the Vermont State House covering three-hour policy meetings and listening as lawyers debated for over 30 minutes the meaning of a single phrase.

But walking the streets of Montpelier and the hallways of state office buildings or wherever our governor’s next press conference might be, I learned my state from a different angle. One hopes that politicians see issues from the same side of an issue as everyone else, but they don’t. Lawmakers and lawyers will fight over the meaning of one simple phrase for 30 minutes because while it’s only a phrase to me, it’s the quality of life of hundreds or thousands of people who look to them, the government, for an answer.

I learned to see the governor, one of only fifty in America (an obvious fact that still brings me pause every time I step into the room with him), is human. A man who can make mistakes, but more importantly, make decisions because he feels in his gut – without always looking at numbers or bulleted lists or commission reports – that people need this. I grew up 0.47 miles from the governor’s office, but it took me 21 years and the right internship to realize this.

If I had to guess how many times I heard my editor, Anne Galloway, say “If you only take away one thing from this summer…” it’s definitely be more than just the once. But if I only take one thing away from this summer, really, it’s that no matter how much research I do, how many interviews I conduct, or how many meetings I attend, I’ll never write the perfect story. Writing alongside my fellow intern Eli Sherman (literally – we shared a desk), Anne, and the other journalists covering Vermont policy and politics, I saw stories written three different ways about the same thing. And I saw stories about three different things all come from a single event. Sometimes I’d see a story about an event I’d passed up and realize it would have been the best story I wrote all summer. The good stories aren’t always where you expect them, and the good become the best sometimes by chance and sometimes because of that one extra phone call.

People on the outside of VTDigger know Anne by her byline, the back of her head in press conference footage on the local evening news, or her phone calls. The only way to truly know an editor, though, is by dragging your chair into their office, sitting over their shoulder, and watching them tear apart – with a precision that to the untrained eye looks remarkably similar to reckless abandon – your day’s work. It took me a good few weeks to write a lede (the first sentence of a story) that Anne didn’t promptly delete. It was painful to watch much of the time, but the education I got looking over Anne’s shoulder as she restructured and reworked my stories was the best journalistic education I’ve had so far. And I go to a journalism school for upwards of $40,000 a year. Anne has an uncanny precision and ability to articulate exactly what the story is without sounding too convoluted or worse: making an incorrect statement in an effort to be direct. I feel lucky to have written for her this summer.

I learned more about photojournalism than I thought there was to know in the arena of taking pictures of press conferences and political meetings from Josh Larkin, VTDigger’s head honcho of technology, design, and photo (and cool hats, but he doesn’t put that on the business cards).

The newsroom, despite being roughly the same size as some of the jail cells we saw on our prison tour of Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., was the best place I’ve ever worked. Walking in every morning, I was ready for something new and different. Almost every morning, I got it. From prison tours to digital nature walks to press conferences with the governor, every day was a new experience. If I began my summer with any doubt in my mind that I want to spend my life as a journalist, it has since disappeared.

VTDigger Introduction, Stories

Fellow intern Eli Sherman and I were introduced on VT Digger today, where we’ve been writing for about a week now. This week, I’ve written a few stories, listed below.


Story + video: Scott, House GOP agree with Democratic governor — Vermonters are taxed out – May 17, 2011

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, and House GOP members told reporters at press conference on Monday that like the Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, they don’t support raising taxes next year to resolve the state’s $70 million budget gap.

Scott wasn’t, however, ready to take a no new taxes pledge.

“Obviously, we don’t know what the federal government is going to do and until we see that we certainly don’t want to have (to cut) any catastrophic areas to those in need,” Scott said. “We all want to make sure we take care of those in need.”

New law makes “complete” streets a priority – May 24, 2011

It’s official: “Complete Streets” rules are now in play.

The Complete Streets Act, signed last week by Gov. Peter Shumlin, asks municipalities to make streets safer for pedestrians and bikers. The Vermont AARP was the lead advocate for the legislation, which is particularly aimed at making sidewalks and roads more user-friendly for older pedestrians. Under the new rules towns will be encouraged to incorporate modifications such as wheelchair ramps and extended crosswalk times into downtown transportation projects. In addition, towns and cities will be urged to install new sidewalks, re-stripe roads for bike lanes and add bus kiosks.

Shumlin signs veterans tax credit legislation – May 25, 2011

COLCHESTER, Vt. – Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the Veterans’ Tax Credit act at Camp Johnson today as Vermont National Guard members looked on.

The new legislation will give employers a $2,000 tax incentive to hire soldiers who have returned from deployments in Afghanistan or Iraq in the last two years. In order to qualify for the tax credit, businesses must employ veterans between now and the end of 2011. Veterans who start new companies this year can also apply for the benefit.

FCC report ranks Vermont 38th in broadband access – May 26, 2011

A Federal Communications Commission report released last week ranked Vermont 38th in the nation in broadband penetration.New Hampshire was in a three-way tie for the nation’s best cell and internet access with Alaska and Utah.

The International Broadband Data Report is released annually by the Federal Communications Commission in an effort to record and inform U.S. broadband development by comparing American broadband with coverage, speed, and pricing in other countries. This year’s report was released on May 20.

Shumlin’s decision to veto water safety bill perplexes proponents – May 30, 2011

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin had a day of firsts last Thursday. Shortly after he inked the nation’s first single-payer health care legislation, Shumlin also vetoed his first bill, S.77, which would have mandated water testing for private wells.

The bill would have required all newly drilled wells intended for use as a potable water supply to undergo testing for contaminates. The same tests would have been required if such wells were sold.

Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” when he learned that the governor planned to veto the bill.

Welch: Flood relief money for private companies, homeowners not likely – May 31, 2011 (Editor Anne Galloway contributed)

Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt., arrived in Barre City Monday on a tour of the flash flood damage to central Vermont not long after the “crisis de jour,” as Mayor Thom Lauzon put it.

A mudslide on West Patterson Street early Monday morning took out a power pole and a large maple tree. Two nearby residences were inspected and one was evacuated. On Sunday, part of a granite retaining wall gave way and a fracture developed in the bank below Hilltop Avenue. Three residences on
Hilltop and four homes at the base of the slope on Kirk Street were evacuated.