It may be months before we know exactly what toxins Tropical Storm Irene washed into Vermont's waterways and onto its landscape, but for now state health officials are taking no chances.
On Tuesday, the state issued a new advisory warning residents not to eat any food that has come into contact with floodwaters because of unknown possible contaminants.
The Vermont Department of Health is advising gardeners to throw away any fruits and vegetables — including root crops — that came in contact with floodwater. According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, all flood-affected crops — above or below ground — should not be consumed, sold or given away.
Apples, pears or other high-growing fruit that were not touched by floodwater should be washed with a known, safe source of water before eating, health officials said.
“Any fresh produce that has been in contact with floodwaters cannot be considered safe to eat,” said Health Commissioner Harry Chen. “This is a change from our earlier advisory. Because the flooding was so extensive and so forceful, there is potential for contamination that cannot be washed or disinfected away."
Meanwhile, survey teams from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources have been desperately working to determine the amount of toxins washed into Vermont's waterways by surging floodwaters. ANR's first task, now largely completed, was to figure out how many wastewater treatment plants were breached or went offline. Now the agency has hazardous materials teams in the field determining the extent of damage caused by spilled fuel oil tanks.
As of Monday, here's the poop on Vermont's sewer systems: Of the 41 wastewater treatment plants surveyed so far, 25 were unscathed. The remaining facilities experienced varying damage and only three — as of Monday — remained offline: Rochester, Woodstock and Richmond. Richmond and Woodstock were pumping and trucking away their waste, while Rochester remains completely shut down, said Chris Recchia, ANR's deputy secretary.
Water treatment plants were also damaged around the state, too. In some cases, drinking water supplies were compromised by floodwater hitting surface water or groundwater.
It should be noted that Rutland's water treatment plant supervisor Michael Garofano was killed, as was his son Mike, when the pair went out to check on Rutland's water line that feeds in from the Mendon Brook, which is adjacent to the Alpine sewage pipeline. They had shut off the city's intake pipe Saturday to ensure it wouldn't be contaminated if the Alpine pipeline failed and went out again on Sunday to monitor the situation when they were apparently swept away by a flash flood.
More than a dozen towns remain under boil water advisories, which means residents are advised not to drink water from their tap unless it's been boiled first.
Here is what ANR found among the 41 wastewater plants surveyed so far:
• Six reported pump station or combined stormwater overflows;
• Five reported a period in which they had primary treatment and disinfection only;
• Seven plants reported damage to the facilities and are taking corrective action: Rochester, Woodstock, Richmond, Middlebury, Waterbury, Northfield and Randolph. Randolph is continuing primary treatment and disinfection only, until they get “seed” to restart secondary treatment; and,
• Two plants reported significant pipeline breaks, including Killington (the Alpine Pipeline), and Woodstock (their siphon under the Ottaquechee River broke — see picture at right for the damage around the Quechee Bridge).
"No one is discharging without at least primary treatment and disinfection, and several of the above are pumping and trucking to other [facilities]," noted Recchia.
It will take many months before ANR knows exactly how much sewage was released into the waterways. In fact, ANR still hasn't completely compiled and analyzed the spillages caused by the massive spring flooding. Right now it's working off of estimates from various sources, but there's no definitive total.
That lack of information from previous floods remains disconcerting to some water quality advocates. They are hopeful the state will improve this time around and get more accurate data in a more rapid fashion.
"We do understand that no one likes talking about sewage spills and releases, no matter the cause, but the lake talks, regardless," said James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation, restoration and revitalization of Lake Champlain and the Lake Champlain watershed. LCI hosts the popular Father's Day fishing derby and other events.
"I am pleased that ANR now agrees with our position and recognizes the need to account cumulatively for these unfortunate events. It makes it difficult to get the communities the help they need to protect our water resources when we cannot quantify the problem," added Ehlers. "Taking ownership of a problem is the first step in solving it."
Bridge Photo courtesy Vermont Standard.