Mel Hawley has worked for the city of Vergennes for the majority of his adult life, and he says he’s seen city maps from as early as 1910 that show underground sewer pipes. The city’s first wastewater plant was built in the early 1960s. Before that, he says, those sewer lines simply emptied into Otter Creek.
On July 1 of this year, 75,200 gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater flowed from the city’s system into Otter Creek, about 26,000 gallons of which was sewage. Virtually every time there’s a rainstorm, the city’s sewer system is overwhelmed and a pump station in a small park pipes excess sewage straight into Potash Brook, yards from its confluence with Otter Creek.
“The amount of overflows under these extreme events, it’s staggering,” Hawley says.
Now city manager, Hawley works in a large office in the city hall. He has a cluttered desk and years of history in his head about the city’s infrastructure.
Hawley says he’s seen city maps from as early as 1910 that show underground sewer pipes. The city’s first wastewater plant was built in the early 1960s. Before that, he says, those sewer lines simply emptied into Otter Creek.
Much has changed since those early sewer lines dumped directly into the creek, but Vergennes residents’ waste is still flowing into Otter Creek quite often.
The overflows are permitted by the state under the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy, which allows systems that treat stormwater along with wastewater to legally overflow when rain causes water to flow into the system faster than the sewage plant can treat it.
But the Vergennes wastewater system isn’t designed to collect stormwater. Vergennes, by design, has a “separate sewer” system, which means wastewater that flows from homes and businesses is supposed to flow directly to the sewage treatment plant and stormwater – rain runoff from the streets, rooftops basements and elsewhere – is never supposed to enter the city’s system.
The underground pipes, though, aren’t well sealed. Some of the city’s sewer lines are still made of clay and are decades old. The system takes in rainwater through “I & I,” interception and infiltration, which occurs when there are openings in the pipes that allow water flow into the system where it’s not supposed to.
The city got its first combined sewer permit in the early 1970s, according to state officials. Instead of sanctioning the city for the faulty system or ordering fixes, those permits have been renewed regularly ever since.
State officials say the regulatory system is doing its job.
“The CSO policy calls out the types of systems that are covered under it – under that particular policy – and in this case it gets to that temporarily high groundwater, so interception of groundwater resulting from precipitation,” says Pete Laflamme, who heads up the Watershed Management Division of the Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s not the combined system in the classic sense where you’ve actually plumbed in … storm sewers into your system intentionally, but the end result is the same thing. It’s intercepting this unusually high level of precipitation that we’ve had, so not your classic CSO, but covered by the policy.”
Vergennes' wastewater system is so broken that even though it’s not designed as a combined sewer system, the state permits it as one, allowing thousands of gallons of sewage to overflow into Otter Creek legally.
Hawley said he wants the system to stop overflowing, but it was designed when the sewer pipes led straight to the creek, so the people designing it didn’t know what capacity they should build for. They underestimated.
“This has been a challenge for the city of Vergennes since the early '60s, and we’ve made major investments really hoping that those major investments solve that problem,” Hawley says, “and it didn’t completely solve that problem. We did it again. And we’re going to need to do it again.”
Those upgrades have replaced clay piping with plastic pipes that keep sewage in and stormwater out, but there are still holes in the system.
State officials say that are holding the city to environmental standards through a regulatory order that required the city to measure its overflows in order to better understand the problem.
“The first step in the orders is to identify the problematic area of the system, to monitor the amount of flows that are coming, and then to look for those parts of the system through camera analysis and other techniques … that are causing the problems and to replace then those parts of the system. I think it’s about an 8,000 foot reach of system that is comprised of this old clay pipe.”
The CSO policy that governs Vergennes was drafted in 1990, and it shows its age. Assertions in the policy of funding availability don’t read like anything produced by cash-strapped Vermont or the federal government in years.
“Act 219 of the 1988 session of the Vermont General Assembly provided for 25 percent state grants and interest free loans in the amount of 50 percent of the total project costs to municipalities undertaking combined sewer overflow collection,” the policy says.
Now it’s on cities and towns – many of which had their original wastewater systems paid for by a flood of federal money that came with the Clean Water Act decades ago – to pay for systems that some of them have never had to heavily invest in.
“The next step, once the problematic area is more clearly defined, which is now happening this summer, then the order will go out for that part of the system to be replaced,” Laflamme says of Vergennes. “The community then will have to pass a bond vote and they can come in, get some grant money from our facilities engineering division and also loan money towards doing that work.”
Despite decades of overflows, Hawley says he’s optimistic the City of Vergennes will stop dumping raw sewage into state waters during his lifetime.
“We do have, for the first time, monitoring equipment down there,” he says. “I’m an optimist, alright? So I really believe once we have this data, the engineers at [the Agency of Natural Resources] can then develop a strategy as to what are the investments that need to occur, what are the steps that need to happen here in Vergennes so that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel whereby we will no longer have overflows.”