With New Law, Sewage Spills Get More Publicity

May 4, 2016

Under a new law signed Wednesday, Vermonters will be informed within hours if any sewage is dumped or spilled into streams, rivers and lakes.

Before the new law, sewage spills caused by wastewater treatment problems or system overflows could happen for an entire day before officials were required to inform the public about the potential health hazard.

Now, officials have to provide public notice within an hour of the sewage spill.

Advocates hope the shorter timeline will help Vermonters avoid public health risks created by spilled sewage.

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Alyssa Schuren said the new law isn’t just about the public health risks caused by sewage. Cyanobacteria, otherwise known as blue-green algae, can also be toxic to humans and pets.

“In addition, this bill is also going to help as we have blue-green algae blooms, to make sure that … there’s an alert system and a website maintained also for those blooms so no one is exposed and people have the information almost as soon as we have it,” Schuren said.

Shumlin congratulated lawmakers on their efforts to improve water quality over the past two years. Last year, lawmakers passed a major water quality law now known as the Vermont Clean Water Act.

"This Legislature has done more in this biennium for clean water than I believe has been done in 50 or more years," Shumlin said. "And this is yet another step that is critical to ensuring that we finally take clean water seriously."

The new law does have a blind spot, lawmakers said, in that in doesn't require public reporting of sewage spills unless the sewage makes it to a public waterway. The loophole became apparent after such a spill occurred in Burlington and officials did not inform the public because they weren't legally obligated to.

Informing and protecting the public was the main thrust of the bill. But officials said it’s also important because it will raise awareness in Vermont for the issues that lead to sewage spills.

Many of them are caused by outdated systems that get overloaded when it rains and spill their excess into nearby rivers or lakes – others are caused by infrastructure that’s too old.

Those problems are solvable, but they require someone to pay big bucks for the fix.

Rep. David Deen is the chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.

"This is not an intractable problem, it is an expensive problem. And the higher the knowledge level is in the electorate, the more willing that the legislature down the road is going to be willing to put forth the resources to be able to solve this problem once and for all."-Rep. David Deen, D - Westminster

He says public signage near the spots where these systems actually overflow into rivers and streams will help people understand the need for those infrastructure investments.

“Having these signs and having the alert system is going to educate Vermonters that we have a problem,” Deen said, referring to the troubled water infrastructure in the state. “This is not an intractable problem, it is an expensive problem. And the higher the knowledge level is in the electorate, the more willing that the Legislature down the road is going to be willing to put forth the resources to be able to solve this problem once and for all.”

Shumlin and Schuren said such public pressure is part of the reason for the this new law.

In her remarks at the bill signing, Schuren extended thanks “to James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International, who’s been really bringing up this issue with us, at least with me personally for the last three years that I’ve been here, and [VPR reporter] Taylor [Dobbs], you should really get a thank you as well for covering the story.”

VPR published 17 news stories and interviews about sewage spills in 2015, and also developed an automated Twitter "bot" that Tweets notice of each new spill.

Schuren says local officials are already stopping by state offices to pick up the new signs, and Vermonters will likely see them around this summer.