As Vt. cities discuss sewer plant overflows, Vergennes pressured to fix problem

VERGENNES — With a meeting looming of cities and towns dealing with overflowing municipal sewer systems, last week Vergennes officials once again discussed their city system’s persistent habit of dumping wastewater into Otter Creek — and the expensive state order to fix the problem that is almost certainly on the way.
A Sept. 5 letter from Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, an organizer of the Sept. 22 meeting, cites a Vermont Public Radio report that Vergennes has experienced seven overflows this year totaling 2,487,980 gallons of untreated water. She referred to them as “an unfortunate number of permitted authorized sewage wastewater discharges in the past year,” adding, “Vermonters both local and regionally have expressed concerns.”
The ANR’s 1272 Orders have also required the city to start measuring the overflows, and to handle that job Vergennes installed a meter in its Macdonough Drive pump station. All wastewater collected east and north of Otter Creek flows through that pump station on its way to the treatment plant on the river’s far bank.
City Manager Mel Hawley told aldermen at their Sept. 8 meeting the city is in full compliance with its existing 1272 Orders, which date back years, including by fulfilling metering and reporting requirements.
Hawley said the city must file a report on what it has learned by the end of this year, and that the next order will probably start insisting on a solution.
“I fully expect once we file that the ANR will start working on another order requiring us to minimize or eliminate overflows at our Macdonough Drive pump station,” Hawley said.
That solution will be neither cheap nor easy, he said.
The overflows most typically occur during and after heavy rains. Contributing to the load that overwhelms the system are illegal basement sump pumps, roof drains and building perimeter drains that empty into the sewer mains, and deteriorating clay sewer pipes that are both privately owned and city-owned.
Hawley said that sewer treatment plant operator Rick Chaput Jr. still believes there could be a “silver bullet” that could put an end to the infiltration problem, but that Hawley himself remained skeptical because there are many sources of infiltration into the system.
“If there’s one, then it’s a few,” Hawley said, adding, “There is a major challenge here.”
Officials did not discuss costs last week, but back in June Hawley told the council once it is time for that fix, a major bond would be necessary. 
“We have a $3 million problem,” Hawley said at the earlier meeting. “There’s no question we will have a bond issue. I could be $10 million off when I say $3 million.”
It’s not clear what help might be available at the Sept. 22 meeting, which will be held next Tuesday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Burlington’s main wastewater treatment plant.
In Lanpher’s invitation to other community and state officials to that meeting, she wrote:
“After talking with Vergennes City Officials and concerned citizens it became clear I needed a lot more information in order to be a useful partner to my City. There are 16 municipalities within Vermont with current CSOs (combined sewer overflows), with Rutland, Burlington and Vergennes at the top for sewage spills. Followed by Middlebury, St. Albans and Shelburne with lesser sewage spills not all related to CSOs.
“I believe we have an opportunity to learn together and work together to understand the situation, the impacts on our water and as partners work on meaningful solutions.”
At last week’s council meeting Mayor Bill Benton held out some hope the meeting would prove useful to Vergennes.
 “If there is going to be a consensus among communities, that would be a great way to do it,” he said.
The larger city of Burlington could provide a template for Vergennes, Benton said.
“Vergennes is a mini-Burlington,” Benton said. “While they were building 1,500 houses, we were building 15.”
Lanpher wrote that she would “pledge my long-term commitment to working with the Council … to find solutions that can address this issue,” and said she would attend the Sept. 29 council meeting.
Meanwhile, the city has been replacing older, city-owned clay lines. Hawley said projects planned for this fall include along Main Street near Champlain Farms, between School and South Water streets, and along Victory Street.
Hawley described those projects at the end of the Sept. 8 meeting, and did not represent them as major steps toward a solution.
“We still have a serious problem with infiltration. The numbers are staggering,” he said earlier in the evening. “I’m still anxious to see how we’re going to solve this problem.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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