Vergennes continues to handle sewer overflows

VERGENNES — At this past Tuesday’s Vergennes City Council meeting, aldermen, City Manager Mel Hawley and a few residents looked at city sewer system issues for about an hour.
A central point of discussion was the city system’s recurring problem of overflowing into Otter Creek, an issue detailed in a Jan. 12 Addison Independent article.
Hawley confirmed that he had forgotten to mention to the Independent one 2014 overflow event from this past summer, although he said it did not compare to the overflow of at least 467,000 gallons on Dec. 24.
“There was a relatively small event in August,” Hawley said. “Christmas Eve was a huge event.”
More recently, over the weekend of Jan. 10-11 a heater in the city’s main MacDonough Drive pump station failed, Hawley said, causing a 0.75-inch water pipe to freeze and burst and the station’s two pumps to fail, causing 12,700 gallons to overflow into the river.
As was the case in the other spills, Vergennes reported the incident to the Agency of Natural Resources, which has given the city a series of orders to fix the overflow issue.
The central problem, officials said, is that during major storms ground water and storm water infiltrate older clay-tile pipes and ill-fitting manhole covers and overwhelm the pumps at the MacDonough Drive station. Sump pumps and roof drains that illegally feed into the sewer system compound the problem, Hawley said.
Vergennes has taken steps over the years to address infiltration, including replacing many of the 14 miles of sewer lines, upgrading pumps, and, most recently, installing metering at the MacDonough Drive station to determine the extent of excess flow at peak times.
Hawley told the Independent that last step is key to begin to address the challenging infiltration issue.
“We don’t want overflow at all. Achieving that goal is no easy task,” he said.
Over the Jan. 10-11 weekend, Hawley said sewer plant operator Rick Chaput and another employee took turns working through the night operating the MacDonough Drive pumps manually to minimize the overflow.
“We had guys working around the clock,” he said. “We take this stuff seriously.”
Hawley said resident Chris Johnson, who works at the Shelburne treatment plant, also confirmed what Hawley told the Independent earlier this month, that well over 90 percent of overflow from municipal sewer plants is water, not sewage.
Gov. Peter Shumlin in his Jan. 8 inaugural speech said that only 3 percent of the pollution reaching Lake Champlain can be traced to municipal treatment plants.
Mayor Bill Benton described the sewer discussion at last Tuesday’s council meeting as productive. 
“Even a couple people with skeptical questions left with the feeling, like, we know there’s a problem,” Benton said. “We’re really trying to work on it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.

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