Group questions Vergennes snow dumping methods

VERGENNES — Piles of snow, packed together in rows like moguls, occupy the parking lot of Falls Park on the south bank of the Otter Creek below Vergennes’ majestic falls.
That’s where the city stores excess snow cleared from downtown sidewalks and roadways. When the snow melts, it flows into the Otter Creek and then into Lake Champlain.
State law says the practice is legal, but Lake Champlain International, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting the lake’s ecosystem, said that allowing plowed snow to flow directly into waterways is bad for the environment.
The group says this is because snow from city streets contains contaminants from vehicles and products used to treat roads.
“Concentrating all the contaminants found on a road surface, such as oil, antifreeze, brake dust and animal waste, and releasing it into our public waters year after year degrades water quality and habitat,” said James Ehlers, executive director of LCI. “It needs to be treated as such.”
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said the city has for years dumped snow on the banks of the Otter Creek.
Usually, trucks will unload snow behind the municipal wastewater treatment plant at the end of Canal Street. But due to warm weather earlier this winter, Hawley said the ground at that location was too soft for the heavy vehicles. So, the Falls Park parking lot was the next best option.
“It didn’t make sense to dump it where we’ve historically been dumping it,” he said.
Hawley said he was aware of concerns by residents and Lake Champlain International about the practice, and said it may be a topic of discussion for future city council meetings.
Hawley defended the practice as both legal and a good solution for cities and towns looking to remove snow from congested commercial areas.
“To our knowledge, there is no regulation that prohibits us from doing that,” Hawley said.
Per state statute, it is illegal to dump snow directly into waterways. It is permissible to dump snow on the banks of rivers, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation encourages towns to create vegetative buffers so that snowmelt is filtered before reaching a waterways.
“If people dispose of snow along a river, we would love to see a buffer strip, such as a silt fence or hay bale, keep solids from being carried away,” said Rick Hopkins, an environmental analyst for the DEC.
In Vergennes, part of the Falls Park parking lot is bordered by a boat launch, meaning that there is no vegetative buffer to filter snowmelt before it flows into the Otter Creek.
It also contrasts with how Middlebury disposes of its excess snow. Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner said town trucks take snow from downtown to a dump off Seymour Street, which is buffered from Otter Creek.
Hopkins said he could not speak authoritatively about the Vergennes snow dump because he had not inspected the site, but given a description of the parking lot layout, he said Vergennes is most likely in the clear.
“That doesn’t sound like a direct discharge, so there would be no violation,” Hopkins said.
Ehlers said just because dumping snow on riverbanks may not be illegal does not mean it doesn’t damage watersheds. He said dumping snow into the creek would not be harmful if it was pure water, but said when snow is taken from city streets, that is not the case.
Towns should allow snow to melt naturally, if it is possible, Ehlers said, or dump snow into specially built lagoons where water can be filtered through the soil before it reaches waterways. Cities with wastewater treatment plants could also filter snow that way.
Allowing snowmelt to flow into Vergennes sewers would not alleviate the problem, because the city does not have a combined sewer system, in which both sewage and stormwater are filtered through wastewater treatment plants. Rather, stormwater in Vergennes flows directly into the Otter Creek.
Gov. Peter Shumlin made cleaning up Lake Champlain a major part of his third inaugural address earlier this month. Much of the governor’s proposals target agricultural runoff, which the Agency of Natural Resources estimates accounts for about 40 percent of phosphorus runoff into the lake.
Ehlers said LCI was pleased that the governor moved environmental issues to the top of his agenda, but urged the administration to place a larger emphasis on municipal sources of pollution.
The governor said in his address that upgrading the state’s wastewater treatment plants would only reduce phosphorus runoff into the lake by 3 percent. Ehlers said not only is phosphorous not the only pollutant, but levels of contaminants vary by geographic area.
He said in the Missisquoi and St. Albans bays, on the northern part of the lake in Franklin County, agriculture dominates as a source of pollution. But in the waters off Burlington and south along the Champlain Valley to Vergennes, development is a large source of contaminants.
Ehlers said while the Shumlin administration is right to crack down on agricultural sources of pollution, the government should not ignore other sources that could be mitigated with investments in municipal sewer and water treatment systems.
“We’re concerned that a community like Vergennes, that needs public investment, isn’t going to get it because no one realizes it’s an issue,” Ehlers said.
Vergennes would likely be a prime candidate for state or federal aid, given its troubled wastewater treatment plant.
The plant could not handle snowmelt during the warm spell at the end of December, and as a result was forced to dump 467,000 gallons of untreated water and sewage directly into the Otter Creek.
City officials blamed the overflow on excess groundwater that penetrated the lines of the 52-year-old sewer system, which has clay pipes even older.
The city is working the Agency of Natural Resources to determine how to upgrade it systems to prevent future releases of untreated sewage into waterways.
“I hope we can get to a point where there are no overflows at the wastewater plant,” Hawley said. “Of course that’s where I want to be.”

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