Outdated And Overlooked, Vermont Sewage Treatment Plants Damage Waterways

Dec 10, 2013

As the state prepares to set a new course for Lake Champlain cleanup, wastewater treatment plants across Vermont continue to dump millions of gallons of polluted water into Lake Champlain and other waterways.

Most of the plant operators responsible for the unauthorized releases aren’t penalized in any way.

“There’s no question that all of the sewage treatment plants in Vermont, at least in the Lake Champlain basin, are going to have to do more to reduce phosphorus levels,” said David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Out of 52 harmful discharges in 2013 totaling more than five million gallons, the Department of Environmental Conservation referred fewer than 10 to enforcement officials at the Agency of Natural Resources.

Mears’ department receives mandatory reports from plant operators when they release harmful discharge into state waters and is responsible for referring those to the enforcement branch of the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

But out of 52 such discharges in 2013 totaling more than five million gallons, the Department of Environmental Conservation referred fewer than 10 to enforcement officials at ANR.

Pollution from wastewater treatment plants is one of many factors state and federal officials are thinking about as they finalize a plan to reduce phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain by 36 percent. Phosphorus feeds the blooms of toxic algae that have fouled the lake in recent summers. Currently, wastewater treatment plants make up about 3.1 percent of phosphorus pollution into the lake.

Raw sewage in Vermont waters

Fifteen of the harmful releases in 2013 came in the form of “Authorized Wet Weather Combined Sewer Overflows.”

A combined sewer system is one that takes in and treats all wastewater, including water and industrial waste that comes from homes and businesses and stormwater that runs into storm drains on city streets.

During heavy rain storms, combined sewer systems are inundated with stormwater and their treatment processes sometimes can’t keep up. In those cases, they are authorized to release their backup – a mix of stormwater and wastewater – directly into natural waterways.

Commissioner David Mears of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation speaks at a Dec. 2 St. Albans meeting about Lake Champlain's phosphorus problem.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

During such a storm on Sept. 13, Burlington’s combined sewer system released 36,800 gallons of stormwater mixed with wastewater into the Winooski River.

In the coming years, Mears expects more and more of the kind of storms that cause combined sewer overflows.

“There’s no question that all the scientific data suggest that the intensity and frequency of rainfall events in Vermont [are] going to increase as a result of climate change,” Mears said.

The 11 municipalities permitted to operate combined sewers might have some big spending ahead. Mears says he hopes to reduce the number of these systems.

“I have every expectation that this is going to be a growing problem unless we can really start to make better progress in terms of, in the case of combined sewer overflows, separating the stormwater out from the sewer system so we don’t have raw sewage that flows out every time there’s a substantial rainfall.”

"This is going to be a growing problem unless we can really start to make better progress in terms of ... separating the stormwater out from the sewer system so we don't have raw sewage that flows out every time there's a substantial rainfall." - David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

Aging infrastructure

After the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the federal government increased water pollution spending to give Vermont municipalities the money they needed to significantly upgrade their water treatment facilities. In many cases, those facilities haven’t been upgraded since.

Anthony Iarrapino is a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. He says investments in the infrastructure haven’t kept pace with the need for plant maintenance and upgrades. And, he says, the state hasn’t done enough to encourage such investments:

“A generation ago, investments were made to improve water quality and to build those plants,” he said “But over time, you have to reinvest in clean water, and I think a consequence of the historical failure of Vermont regulators to make sure that continuing investment was made and planned for is that there are some municipalities that are ill-prepared to meet the challenge of accepting responsibility to cleaning up their pollution.”

Mears says some communities have renovated their plants since the 1980s, and an important aspect of that work was to design with the future in mind.

“They may overdesign their plants,” he said, so that they are ahead of the curve and won’t be forced to do more work if water quality standards become stricter. But the number of communities like that is “vanishingly small,” Mears says.

“I can’t think of any communities that are so far ahead I don’t worry about them.”

One of the treatment plants Mears worries about is in Essex Junction, where Jim Jutras is the superintendent of water quality.

That facility is one of only three that the Department of Environmental Conservation has referred to ANR for enforcement in 2013.

The Essex Junction plant is one of the few in the state that is renovating to improve its processes and expand capacity. Those renovations caused some problems with the treatment process this fall, resulting in the release of more than two million gallons of treated and partially disinfected water into the Winooski River. While much cleaner than raw sewage, that water wasn’t fully treated for harmful bacteria before it flowed into the river.

Jutras acknowledged the releases, but says his facility otherwise does an exceptional job of removing pollutants such as phosphorus from the water supply, and the upgrades will make it even better. Jutras says the cost implications are huge for facilities like the one in Essex if the state tightens pollution standards – such as imposing new limits on phosphorus.

Clean, clear water flows from the Essex Junction wastewater treatment facility after it has been fully treated and disinfected.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

“We’re allowed to discharge quite a few pounds of phosphorus,” he said, “but we remove almost 70 percent of it as part of the process. The more you remove, the harder it is to get it out.”

In other words, cutting into that last 30 percent in order to further reduce phosphorus output is no easy task.

“And the way the permits are heading, sometimes doing a good job knocking phosphorus out actually creates a tighter standard for you, and higher costs on top of it all," Jutras says. "So it’s a little frustrating that if you’re doing a good job and you have good solid behavior, you’re not necessarily getting recognized for it.”

"The way the permits are heading, sometimes doing a good job knocking phosphorus out actually creates a tighter standard for you, and higher costs on top of it all." - Jim Jutras, Essex Junction Wastewater Treatment Facility

Enforcement

Aside from Essex Junction, the Department of Environmental Conservation has referred cases from Brandon and Fair Haven to ANR for enforcement. Usually, “enforcement” means a fine for unauthorized, preventable releases.

The town of Canaan recently paid a $20,000 fine when an independent test showed its discharge exceeded permit limits in 2010 for E. coli, despite internal lab results that showed otherwise.

For the most part, though, releases of polluted water aren’t even referred for enforcement. Of the 20 municipalities that reported unauthorized releases in 2013 (meaning the water was not fully through the treatment and disinfection process), only three were referred for enforcement.

Ernie Kelley, the program manager for the DEC’s wastewater prevention efforts, is responsible for referring cases to ANR enforcement lawyers. He says that many of the unauthorized discharges are due to unexpected equipment failures or other anomalies that aren’t caused by underlying bad practices.

“The bottom line is that the treatment plant operators in Vermont are really good, and they take what they do extremely seriously and they try their damndest,” Kelley said.

Mears echoed that sentiment. He said thinks the department’s referral rate for enforcement action is appropriate, given the limited resources the state has to go after violators.

“The assumption that I have as a prosecutor of these regulations,” Mears said, “is that if we catch people periodically and we assess substantial fines and we make sure that the rest of the community knows about them, that everybody will step up their game.”