Church Street Sewage Spill Highlights Gap In Public Notification Rules

Apr 8, 2016

Sewage spilled onto Church Street in Burlington Thursday, and city officials did not report it to the state agency responsible for warning residents when a potentially harmful sewage spill happens. According to officials’ interpretation of state laws, there is no requirement that the public be informed about the flow of sewage, which was caused by a problem with sewage infrastructure on private property.

“The sewage was running above ground across the private property and on our sidewalk and street,” said Chapin Spencer, Burlington’s director of public works, in an email. “The material was both collected by our Vactor (vacuum truck) and directed into the combined sewer system (that goes to the main [wastewater treatment plant].”

State law requires that the Department of Environmental Conservation post “notice of an illegal discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.”

Ernie Kelley, the head of the state’s wastewater program, said the Burlington spill is a potential health risk.

“Yeah, that’s a potential threat to the public,” he said Friday of the spill.

But the state’s definition of the word “discharge” makes it so that city officials aren’t actually required to warn the public about it because the sewage didn’t flow into any of the state’s natural waterways.

“Discharge,” according to the relevant state law, “means the placing, depositing, or emission of any wastes, directly or indirectly, into an injection well or into the waters of the state.”

"Yeah that's a potential threat to the public." - Ernie Kelley, Department of Environmental Conservation

  In other words, the city wasn’t required to report the leak because the sewage was either cleaned up by a vacuum truck or flowed into a storm system that carried it to a wastewater treatment plant.

Still, sewage flowing on Church Street (near the property with the problem at 184 Church Street) is a threat to public health. The Vermont House passed a bill earlier this year to raise the standards for public notice about sewage leaks.

The bill, as the House passed it, shortens the amount of time officials have to report spills to the public. Kelley said he believes the legislation will clarify the requirements around public notice in instances like Thursday’s Burlington spill.

“I think that’s one of the things that the present legislation is aimed at clearing up, is that grey area if you will,” Kelley said Friday.

The new definitions in the bill say that an “untreated discharge” must be reported. “Untreated discharge,” according to the bill, means:

  • combined sewer overflows from a wastewater treatment facility;
  • overflows from sanitary sewers and combined sewer systems that are part of a wastewater treatment facility during dry weather flows, which result in a discharge to waters of the State;
  • upsets or bypasses around or within a wastewater treatment facility during dry or wet weather conditions that are due to factors unrelated to a wet weather storm event and that result in a discharge of sewage that has not been fully treated to waters of the state; and
  • discharges from a wastewater treatment facility to separate storm sewer systems.

Based on that language, it’s not clear if a leak such as the Burlington incident on Thursday would be required to be reported, since every meaning of “untreated discharge” ultimately meets the definition only of the polluted water ends up, untreated, into the state’s waterways.

James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, has said for years that the state has inadequate rules for public notification of sewage spills. He says he’s not convinced the new legislation would require situations like Burlington’s Thursday spill to be reported.

“I’m not comfortable that it does,” he said. “Because in the definition of untreated sewage it’s only talking about discharges from the facility. It’s not talking about discharges before it reaches the [wastewater treatment] facility.”

Still, he said, the situation shows a major flaw in the way the state handles sewage spills.

“Public officials need to be legally compelled because they’re not taking the initiative to alert the public to potential threats to their health," Ehlers said, "which ... I’d say is pretty pathetic.”