On July 1, the day after Gov. Peter Shumlin proclaimed July “Lakes Appreciation Month,” and just two days before the July 4 weekend, two cities released tens of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into state waterways.
Both Vergennes and Burlington have combined sewer systems, which treat sewage and wastewater through the same infrastructure. Combined sewer systems are allowed by state regulators to dump untreated sewage and stormwater when water is coming in faster than the plant can treat it. The overflows prevent sewage from backing up into local homes and businesses.
In Burlington, the city released an estimated 11,130 gallons of sewage near the Barge Canal in the city’s south end over a four-and-a-half hour period in the middle of the day July 1. City officials reported to state regulators that the more than two inches of rain that fell on the city led to the overflows. The officials said Monday they don’t know how much untreated stormwater overflowed from the city system.
Wastewater treatment operators told regulators they prevented another 5,460 gallons of untreated sewage from overflowing from the city’s system by re-routing the flow to a parallel sewer line.
In Vergennes, 75,200 gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater (15,040 gallons of which was sewage, according to city estimates) flowed into Otter Creek and ultimately Lake Champlain because of the heavy rains.
The Vergennes overflow was the city’s seventh of the year and brought the total volume of untreated water dumped to 2,487,980 gallons. By this time last year, the total volume dumped in authorized combined sewer overflows statewide was less than 45,000 gallons.
The city official responsible for water treatment in Vergennes has not responded to multiple inquiries from news media this summer about the overflows. The city was responsible for three of the largest releases of polluted water so far this year. Vergennes’ Chief Wastewater Treatment Operator Rick Chaput is listed as the public contact for inquiries about the spills when they are reported to regulators. He did not respond to VPR’s request for comment on the topic last December, when the city dumped 12,700 gallons of sewage in an unauthorized overflow. He has not responded to any of VPR’s subsequent inquiries either.
Chaput also was “unavailable for comment” when VTDigger reported on the overflows June 16.
It’s not clear if state officials are concerned with the increase in releases from the Vergennes plant. Gary Kessler, the head of the state’s Compliance and Enforcement division within the Department of Environmental Conservation, referred questions to Pete LaFlamme, the director of the Watershed Management Division. Laflamme did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
Update 3:16 p.m. Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said Monday that part of the reason for the apparent surge in the volume of sewage released by the city is that officials recently added electronic monitoring systems that allow for more accurate estimates of overflow volumes.
“It was just this past spring that we now have overflow monitoring equipment, so that when there is an overflow at the McDonough Drive pump station, we now have accurate readings,” Hawley said. “In the past, any time that there was an overflow, the amount of flow was estimated.”
Hawley said that because the systems weren’t in place before, it’s hard to compare the amount of overflow this year with previous years.
“Previous years, those numbers were really estimates, and I think a better word is guesstimate because we had no monitoring equipment,” he said.
Hawley said miles of the city’s sewer lines have been replaced in recent decades, but private property owners’ connections and some city pipes may still be old clay pipes that allow some groundwater to infiltrate the system, which is at least part of the problem with the overflows.
Once the city has a year of flow data from the new monitoring equipment, Hawley said, city officials will work with the state’s Agency of Natural Resources to determine next steps.