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Vergennes flagged for sewer overflow

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Posted on February 18, 2016 |
By Mike Polhamus



MONTPELIER — The cities of Rutland and Vergennes released more than 1 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Lake Champlain tributaries last week, an event that the EPA acknowledges violates federal law.

State and local officials say they’re pursuing efforts that will over time eliminate such incidents, but funding for needed improvements in those communities and others is sparse.

Legislators are working on a bill that would strengthen reporting requirements for overflows like these, to better notify the public when sewage enters public waterways.

The discharges, called combined sewage overflows, happen in communities where sewage and stormwater are sent through the same system of pipes, meaning heavy rain can overwhelm the wastewater treatment plant.

“I think most people in Rutland are grossed out by the situation as it is on the ground right now, but we have to pick our battles,” said William Notte, president of the Rutland Board of Aldermen.

Rutland residents recently approved a $2.5 million bond for a project to eliminate some stormwater from its sewage stream, but much remains to be done, and residents can’t afford to do it all at once, Notte said.

Municipalities are violating federal law when they discharge raw sewage into public waters, said Chris Kilian, Vermont director for the Conservation Law Foundation.

The Environmental Protection Agency agrees.

“It’s true, in spite of municipal plans, the towns are in violation (of the Clean Water Act) when there is a CSO discharge. It does violate the Clean Water Act,” said Emily Bender, spokesperson for the EPA’s New England office.

Advocates like James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, said they could sue towns to clean up their effluent. But that would only further impoverish governments that already lack funding for proper infrastructure, Ehlers said.

Kilian says the state should be taking a greater role. “The state has been in a very soft posture on enforcement on these issues,” he said.

“It violates the federal Clean Water Act, and I’d argue it violates the state’s water pollution control act,” he said. “There’s some debate about that, but I think it’s a misimpression of certainly municipalities, but I believe some within the state as well, that discharging raw sewage can be authorized. They can’t. It’s always illegal.”

The discharges violate the Clean Water Act simply by polluting Vermont’s waterways with untreated human waste; they violate state law by persisting in doing so, Ehlers said.

“The state is supposed to require (municipalities) to come up with a plan to eliminate (sewage discharges), and they’ve basically been getting a free pass, because this is not a new issue,” Ehlers said. Rutland alone had more than 30 such discharges last year, he said, and 13 already this year.

The state has 68 wastewater systems that are vulnerable to the combined sewage overflows, down from nearly 170 at one time, said Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren.

Other municipalities avoid the problem by sending only sewage to their wastewater treatment plants.

When an overflow happens, about 95 percent of what’s released is stormwater, Schuren said. But since the remainder is raw sewage, these events pose a real public health problem, she said.

“Our goal is to phase out these (combined sewage overflows), and we agree that they’re a concern to public health and the environment,” she said.

The state is rewriting rules concerning wastewater systems and will require towns to write long-range plans showing how they intend to make necessary upgrades to their facilities, Schuren said. This has been a process taking place over many years, she said, and making the upgrades is expensive.

Advocates say many localities can’t afford the needed wastewater system upgrades and that the state should chip in.

“If they know one of the communities in their jurisdiction is financially incapable, they need to step in as a state and make sure the pollution does not continue,” Ehlers said.

“There are two guilty parties here,” he added.

Kilian said federal law allows organizations like his and Ehlers’ to sue the state for failing to use its enforcement authority over municipalities that violate the Clean Water Act. He said his organization has no plans to sue over the overflows, but he added that CLF has successfully sued governments in the past over the same issue.

He said the problem is real because the overflows are “far more common than you might think, unfortunately.”

Rutland released raw sewage 13 times in January, sending more than 3 million gallons of wastewater downstream toward Lake Champlain, Ehlers said.

Although the city doesn’t plan to spend more soon on its wastewater system to prevent the overflows, it is investing in methods to control wastewater through landscaping, Notte said. Slowing the flow of stormwater through towns ameliorates many causes and types of pollution, he said, and doing so is often more cost-efficient than rebuilding infrastructure.

But uncommonly severe storms will become more common as a result of climate change, said Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and as a result the problems associated with this type of wastewater management will too.

That is why she’s introduced a bill, H. 674¸, requiring public notice immediately after combined sewage overflows.

“Reporting on it needs to be done faster, and needs to be done in a way people can find out about it,” she said. “Not in a way that, three days later, someone should put a sign up on the dock that says, ‘Three days ago I hope you weren’t here.’”

Lanpher said she hopes her notification plan will protect the health of people using public waters and call attention to the issue.

Ehlers said he enthusiastically supports the bill.

Notifications to the state already occur when sewage overflows into public waters, Ehlers said, but not until it’s too late for members of the public to respond.

“Right now there’s a reporting system, but it’s like rearview window watching. By the time the public gets the information it’s of no value, unless you’re plotting stuff on a graph,” he said. “If you’re swimming, or boating, or fishing, you don’t want to know three days later that you’re swimming in a sewage release. You want to know now.”

The bill also would require the state to issue public notices when blue-green algae blooms occur, which can be toxic.

Kilian said the bill is in service of a worthy aim, but he hopes lawmakers can go beyond just providing notifications.

“Investing in infrastructure for our communities is the foundation for successful growth and development of our economy over time,” he said. “In order to have downtowns, in order to have sustainable communities, in order to have development generally, we need infrastructure that can handle it.”

Household cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, pathogens and other noxious substances all end up in public waterways when sewage flows into them untreated, he said.

“I don’t think you’d find many people in the state of Vermont who’d stand up in defense of dumping raw sewage in lakes and streams,” he said. “There’s a reason it’s illegal.”

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