Sewage From Burlington Home Causes Major E. Coli Contamination In Lake Champlain

Sep 18, 2015

A Burlington home connected to the wrong city pipe has been fueling a public health hazard on a private beach in the city’s New North End all month, and officials don’t know when the problem started.

Burlington Public Works Director Chapin Spencer says that a wastewater line coming from a home in the New North End was connected to the city’s stormwater pipe instead of a sewer main.

In that area of town, Spencer said, the underground pipe networks for stormwater and wastewater are separate, “so the stormwater pipe goes to Lake Champlain.”

Spencer said the home in question was built in the year 2000 and there are no city permits on file to suggest a change in the building's sewage connection since then. He said the problem may date back years, though city inspectors have checked that area in the "last decade" and found no problems.

The Strathmore Homeowners Association has a private beach in the area and has sent water test results to members of the association. According to an email sent Wednesday, a September 15 test at the private beach showed an E. Coli concentration of 1,733 parts per 100 milliliters. Water with a concentration above 235 parts per 100 milliliters is considered unsafe for swimming, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

The Wednesday email to members of the association also lists results for three pipes that were tested for E. Coli. One of them tested at 120,330 parts per 100 milliliters.

Despite the clear threat to public health, state officials say they know little about the incident.

"I have not heard of, or anything about this." - Ernie Kelley, Vermont Wastewater Management Program

Vermont municipalities operating a wastewater system are required by law to notify the Department of Environmental Conservation any time untreated sewage goes into public waters like rivers and lakes, but DEC officials said this week that they’d never heard of the Burlington issue.

“I have not heard of, or anything about this,” said Wastewater Management Program Manager Ernie Kelley by email on Thursday.  

In an emailed statement on Thursday, Vermont Department of Health spokesman Robert Stirewalt said the department is not involved.

“We are aware of the sampling that was being conducted, but the Health Department is not involved in that activity,” he said of the Strathmore Homeowners Association testing. “ The beach is managed by the homeowner association. The city of Burlington, Public Works Department is investigating a sewer line / storm water connection issue in that area.”

The state’s website for public reporting of sewage spills also has no information about the problem.

Despite state agencies having little knowledge of the issue, Spencer says he believes the city is in compliance with its state permits.

The problem was discovered Sept. 2 and the city has been urging the private contractor responsible for the connection to fix it. State officials say they know little about the incident, and the state's website for public reporting of sewage spills also has no information about the problem.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

“My understanding from staff, and I will double-check, is that we’ve been complying with our MS4 permit, which is our stormwater permit, in regards to this issue,” he said Friday afternoon.

Spencer said the problem was discovered Sept. 2 and the city has been urging the private contractor responsible for the connection to fix it.

“Our department has been using a tanker truck to pump out the stormwater line a couple times a week until the contractor gets out there to fix it,” Spencer said.

He said he didn’t know if the pumping was preventing all sewage from reaching Lake Champlain, but this week’s results from the homeowner’s association suggest E. Coli is still making its way into Lake Champlain.

Tom Papp, listed in state records as the president of the homeowners association, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, though he signed a letter to association members about the issue early in September.

Update 12:29 p.m. 9/22/2015 Ernie Kelley, the head of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Wastewater Management Program, said Sept. 22 that DEC was, in fact, informed of the residential connection on Sept. 2. Kelley said by email that the city contacted DEC's Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) program staff, but that the IDDE staff never relayed the information to Kelley's unit.