The City of Montpelier has been in the news in recent weeks after sewage overflowed out of the city’s system and into the Winooski River, but state records show sewage overflows are not news to city officials. In recent years, the city’s sewage system has overflowed regularly and the city simply wasn’t reporting the overflows to the public like other cities do.
This summer’s overflows are in the news because, in effect, this summer is the first time the public knew they’d happened.
“The reporting may not have been as on-target as what is now required,” said Tom McArdle, Montpelier’s director of public works.
This year, a new state law implemented new requirements for informing the public about sewage spills. The law requires that cities and towns post public notice within one to four hours of finding out about a sewage spill or overflow.
(The law also requires similar notification when blue-green algae blooms occur, though critics say the state's notification efforts fall short.)
Alyssa Schuren, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, says the gaps in public reporting are exactly why this year's legislation was needed.
"Prior to that [law], from our perspective there was ambiguity in the law, so we really welcomed that level of clarification that we saw from the Legislature this year," she said. "And now places like Montpelier and other communities around the state that do have these overflows are required to report them."
Public notice is important so that members of the public can be informed about potential health threats in the water before using the water for swimming, fishing or other recreation. Schuren said it also helps raise awareness about the investments needed to prevent sewage overflows.
McArdle said before the new law was passed, the city was working under the impression that public reporting to the state's online sewage spill website was optional.
“Prior to the law, we were to monitor them and take actions to reduce them. They are permitted overflows. The state was looking to try and improve on overall reporting as a matter of law rather than communities not being actually required to report, so that is a bit of a change,” he said.
According to a state order issued in 2012, the City of Montpelier was required to notify the public about sewage spills in 2013. Other documents show that city officials failed to inform the public of as many as 39 sewage overflows that year.
Montpelier has been required to provide the public with notice of its sewage overflows since at least 2008. An order from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation that year required “implementation of a public notification process to ensure that the public receives adequate notification when and where [overflows] occur.”
The 2012 order contains similar language.
Despite that requirement, a 2013 report showed that Montpelier had 40 overflows in 2013 from six different outflow locations while the state's online sewage notification database – the only readily available public data about sewage discharges – shows just one overflow and two spills for the City of Montpelier in 2013.
VPR requested the 2013 records based on information from James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, who suggested that not all of Montpelier's sewage discharges had been publicly reported.
Schuren said she is not aware of any public notification efforts by the city, but she said it's possible that the city may have been in touch with local health officials when the overflows occurred in the past.
The overflows are allowed by state regulators on the condition that the cities and towns that experience overflows take steps to reduce them. Known as “Combined Sewer Overflows,” or CSOs, the sewage releases happen under especially rainy conditions, when sewer systems that also collect stormwater are overwhelmed by the influx of water. In an effort to prevent sewage and stormwater from backing up into homes and businesses, the systems are designed to dump the mix of sewage and stormwater when they’re over capacity. The excess – a mix of untreated stormwater from streets or parking lots and raw sewage – flows directly into a nearby river or lake.
In Montpelier’s case, the Winooski River takes in the polluted water, then carries it to Lake Champlain. Montpelier has been working to reduce combined sewer overflows since the early 1990s, spending millions of dollars, and has had some success.
The 2013 report filed with state regulators shows that Montpelier went from 102 overflows in 2005 to 40 in 2013. The improvements can be costly; underground pipes must be excavated and redesigned so that storm drains don’t send water into the same lines that take sewage to the local water treatment plant. That process is known as stormwater separation.
“We did two CSO separation projects this year,” McArdle said Monday, “and we have more planned in the future.”
The city is required by state regulators to make investments in its system to prevent overflows. But those efforts haven’t been without problems.
When enough stormwater flow has been separated out of a system, some overflow outfall pipes can be closed off to allow sewage to go directly to the treatment plant without the chance of overflowing. In a nod to progress made in Montpelier’s separation efforts, the state ordered the city to close one of its outflow pipes by the end of 2008, but an email to regulators from 2011 shows the city only briefly complied.
“Shortly after the overflow [pipe] was blocked off, a high intensity rainstorm hit the area and since the overflow to the river from CSO 009 [the closed pipe], the sewer main backed up, through service lines and flooded several basements with sewage. CSO 009 was re-opened as part of the emergency response during the rainstorm and has remained open ever since,” wrote Kurt Motyka, an engineer for the City of Montpelier.
The same year-end report that showed progress in Montpelier’s efforts by late 2013 also revealed that the city had failed to notify the public about the vast majority of its sewage overflows that year.
The same 2008 state order that requires public reporting about overflows required annual reporting as well.
“Montpelier shall monitor CSO 001, 003, 007, 008, 023 and annually submit a report to the Agency detailing the monitoring results,” the order says.
Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation said they were unable to find such reports, and that it's possible they were destroyed after five years in keeping with a records retention policy.
As a result, it’s difficult to know how many sewage spills and overflows from the City of Montpelier went unreported before the new state law forced the city to make them public within one to four hours.
Schuren said that whatever has happened in the past, this year's law makes public notification unambiguously required.
"If it was true that these Combined Sewer Overflow events were happening and the public didn't know about it at the time, that won't happen again under this new system," she said.