New Bill Allows Some Sewage Spills To Go Unreported

Apr 14, 2016

The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee has decided not to fix a technicality in legislation that requires sewage treatment plant operators to notify the public if there is a sewage spill, according to Sen. Chris Bray.

The technicality, reported Friday by VPR, is that neither current state law nor the legislation currently in the Senate requires sewage spills to be reported if the sewage does not ultimately flow to “waters of the state” – streams, rivers and lakes.

“We will not be introducing any amendments to address the situation now,” Bray said.

Burlington had a spill last week that was not reported to the public. City officials say a problem on a private property caused sewage to spill onto Church Street, running over a sidewalk. City and state officials agreed that because the sewage was cleaned up on site or flowed into a storm drain that led to a wastewater treatment facility, the spill didn’t need to be reported to the public under current law.

The law says, in part, that the state “shall post publicly notice of an illegal discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.” However, because the law defines “discharge” as sewage flowing into waters of the state, a sewage dump that doesn’t spill into a waterway doesn’t qualify.

If the Burlington sewage had gone into a storm drain that flowed straight to a river or lake, the city would have been required to report it.

Bray, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee, said fixing the blind spot in the current legislation would take too long at this stage in the legislative session (lawmakers usually adjourn in early May).

"Given how far along we are in this bill at this point, it makes the most sense to get this passed and put this on our agenda to look into for next session." - Sen. Chris Bray, D - Addison

“The situation that happened in Burlington goes into another whole section of law,” Bray said, “and it turns out it’s a very — as best we can tell — a very rare occurrence. So given how far along we are in this bill at this point, it makes the most sense to get this passed and put this on our agenda to look into for next session.”

The senator didn’t say how he was able to determine that such spills are rare, given that they’re not required to be reported to any central authority.

Bray said opening the bill for new testimony with only four committee days remaining in the session would not make sense, given other business the committee has to attend to.