Members of a Burlington homeowners association will soon be able to enjoy the association’s private beach without fear that they’re swimming in a neighbor’s excrement.
A private contractor is fixing an improper pipe connection in Burlington Wednesday that caused a home’s sewage to flow untreated into Lake Champlain for as many as 15 years. City officials discovered Sept. 2 that the home's wastewater, which is supposed to be connected to sewer pipes that lead to a treatment plant, was instead flowing to a stormwater pipe that flows directly into Lake Champlain.
Burlington Public Works Director Chapin Spencer said the city contacted the homeowner in the upscale Strathmore Point neighborhood as soon as the issue was discovered. The city also contacted the contractor who built the home in 2000 and demanded that the problem be fixed as soon as possible.
“We don’t like to see this like anybody else,” Spencer said. “It does reduce the quality of life and creates damage to our water body that we don’t want to see.”
But some have questioned the city’s handling of the issue, saying officials should have addressed the threat to public health immediately instead of waiting three weeks for the contractor to implement a fix.
Asked about the issue on Friday, Vermont’s top official overseeing wastewater issues said the city took the wrong approach.
“It’s the kind of situation that had we known about it and had my program received a report of it, we certainly would’ve taken a more proactive response on it,” said Ernie Kelley, the manager of the Wastewater Management Division in the Department of Environmental Conservation. “It would not have been, you know, allowing the city two weeks to figure out who was responsible for having installed it incorrectly and whose responsibility it was to correct that situation and dig it up and fix it. … We would’ve taken immediate steps basically to require that, had we known that there was a discharge of this sort going on - basically untreated sewage going out through a stormwater conduit into the lake. At that point in time it would’ve been ‘Fix it, then figure out who you bill it back to,’ not the other way around.”
Kelley voiced concerns Friday that the city hadn’t informed his division when officials discovered the connection Sept. 2, but city officials had, in fact, informed the proper authorities. Another DEC division, the Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination Program, received word from the city Sept. 2. No one at the state or city informed Kelley about the spill before VPR contacted him Sept. 17.
Three weeks after DEC learned of the ongoing discharge, the department has not issued any public notice of it on its website for information about sewage spills. Under state law, “[t]he secretary of natural resources shall post publicly notice of an illegal discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment on its website within 24 hours of the agency’s receipt of notification of the discharge.”
Despite DEC having knowledge of the issue, no one at the state level intervened and forced the city to act faster, as Kelley suggested.
Wednesday’s fix for the problem will be welcome news for the Strathmore Homeowners Association, which has attempted unsuccessfully to address the source of E. Coli contamination in the past.
In August 2013, according to emails obtained by VPR, the homeowners association closed the members-only beach in response to E. Coli levels four times higher than safe levels.
The email said the city’s Department of Public Works did “extensive testing on the storm pipe system under Appletree Pt Rd and has not found any illicit connections to sanitary sewers or any breaks in the storm line that would account for the high E. Coli readings.”
The culprit in 2013?
“The latest evidence (large chewed sticks, mud) points to beaver activity in the pipes. Property Mgt has removed 4 beavers from the area in the past few weeks,” the members email, signed by association president Tom Papp, said.
The city was content with that explanation, and in May of 2014 Papp sent another email to members to inform them that “[i]n order to protect our stormwater system and beach from this health hazard, we have installed ‘beaver grates’ at all of the stormwater outfall and inlet pipes that the board determined to be ‘at risk.’”
It’s unclear what direction, if any, the homeowners association was getting from public officials in addressing the problem at the time. The home at 146 Appletree Point Rd. continued sending wastewater into the lake.
City officials say they didn’t find the illicit connection then because of the tests they used.
Laurie Adams, Burlington’s assistant public works director in charge of water quality, said “what we used to know worked was the optical brightener testing,” which uses a substance that changes color when it comes in contact with chemicals commonly found in wastewater. “But now they’re even finding that the optical brightener testing, because people have gotten away from phosphorus in their detergents, that’s not even effective.”
With the immediate problem being fixed this week, Spencer said the city is looking at ordinances and policies to ensure illicit connections don’t go undetected – or don’t happen in the first place.
“The investigation work is continuing,” he said Tuesday. “We’re going to be looking at other homes in the neighborhood and making sure that this isn’t a wider problem than this one home.”