Muddied Waters: No Clear Solutions for Burlington's Wastewater Problem | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Muddied Waters: No Clear Solutions for Burlington's Wastewater Problem


Published June 13, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Dreamstime | Diane Sullivan

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) declared at a press conference in Burlington last week that he'd secured $8.4 million in federal dollars to help clean up Lake Champlain — an "amazing achievement," he said, that included $1.3 million for sewer upgrades in shoreline municipalities.

As Vermont's senior senator spoke on June 4 at the ECHO aquarium and science center that bears his name, 1.1 million gallons of sewage and wastewater were spewing into the lake from the city's main treatment plant, less than a mile south. It was the third overflow in two weeks and the fifth incident this year, according to city reports submitted to the state's Agency of Natural Resources.

Burlington has released 8 million gallons of dirty water since the start of 2018 — more than triple the total from last year.

Before 2016, Vermont didn't require municipalities to report their spills into what Leahy dubbed the "jewel of New England." A law passed that year now obligates them to notify the state and to alert residents online and by posting warning signs on public beaches. Burlington also gets the word out via social media.

"WTF — our poor Lake!" one commenter wrote on the Facebook page for Burlington's Parks, Recreation & Waterfront department following the most recent discharge.

Another posted: "This is becoming the norm, and it's despicable," while someone called for the firing of the "unqualified losers" who work at the wastewater facility.

Leahy's environmental program aide was more diplomatic. Confirming that his boss did not know about Burlington's latest ill-timed spill, Tom Berry told Seven Days: "We're aware that these things have been happening with a frequency that we need to dig into." The money secured by Vermont's senior senator may help, Berry added.

Megan Moir, water treatment division head for Burlington's Department of Public Works, attributes the spike in the number and volume of discharges to "natural variability" in weather and conditions. Three of the five spills have had unique causes, she noted.

In January, the city reported an overflow of tens of thousands of gallons into the Pine Street barge canal because of snowmelt and a heavy rainstorm.

When a valve broke on April 16, more than 7 million gallons of partially disinfected wastewater spilled into the lake.

Not long after, debris clogged a pipe near Oakledge Park while a contractor was doing roadwork on May 21. The water backed up, releasing up to 500 gallons of raw sewage.

Two spills in June — during which a combined 1.8 million gallons of partially disinfected water gushed into the lake — can be blamed at least in part on the city's wastewater infrastructure. Burlington has a combined sewer system, designed to collect both sewage and some stormwater runoff from the street in one pipe.

Heavy rains can overwhelm the system, leaving the treatment plants unable to store or fully treat the torrent. When water reaches a certain level, it receives partial purification or, in the most extreme cases, bypasses the treatment plant and flows directly into the nearest body of water.

But rain wasn't the only culprit in the most recent incidents, wastewater facilities manager Matt Dow told a group of reporters on a tour of the Burlington treatment plant by Perkins Pier last Thursday. The microorganisms that break down the carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen haven't been fully digesting waste, causing more bacteria to be released into the lake, he explained.

"The plant has a bellyache," Dow translated as he led the media entourage by 12 foaming, coffee-colored pools.

The problem with the "bugs," as Dow affectionately called the microorganisms, may have been caused by a growing number of breweries and food distributors that wash their food scraps or hops and yeast down the drain. That can upset the balance of nutrients that feed the microorganisms, disrupting the system.

On June 1, Dow placed a warning sign at the U.S. Coast Guard boat launch that read, "There was a less than fully treated sewage discharge ... Avoid swimming, wading, boating or fishing while this sign is posted!" Similar notices went up at Oakledge Park, Perkins Pier and the public beach alongside the Burlington Surf Club, formerly Blodgett Oven property.

It would be safe to swim again in 48 hours, the signs noted.

That didn't comfort Andrea Todd, an Old North End resident who weighed in on the Department of Public Works' Facebook page. She reached out to Seven Days, too, to express her concern about Burlington's myriad new development projects and how they might further tax the city's inadequate plumbing infrastructure. She wondered how leaders of a "growing city" would manage not only water in the Queen City "but lake health."

Surprisingly, some of the city's biggest building projects, such as CityPlace Burlington and Cambrian Rise, are expected to improve the problem, according to Moir. They are installing their own stormwater systems, which will reduce the water funneled into the treatment plant during heavy rains. She said the city's sewage system has capacity for the extra toilets.

Another revelation: The overflows have minimal impact on the lake's ecology and algae blooms, said Jessica Bulova, supervisor of the wastewater program for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The water released contains a very small amount of phosphorous, which is the target of the Lake Champlain cleanup efforts. "The real concern is human health," Bulova said, referring to E. coli bacteria.

"Municipalities recognize this as a great concern, but it is an expensive and slow process," Bulova said.

Even James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International who's running for governor, contended that the central issue is about the bacteria — though he added that regulators should be taking the issue more seriously.

"This is about human pathogens and viruses being knowingly, and in some cases intentionally, being put out into public waters without any advance notice to the public downstream," Ehlers said. "We are exposing people to disease, and basically with an 'Eh, so-it-goes' attitude."

Moir assured that the E. coli levels measured at the closed beaches in Burlington were still well below the levels allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It's not ambivalence but the scope of the challenge that has held up cleanup efforts, according to Chapin Spencer, director of Burlington's Department of Public Works.

He estimated that wastewater and stormwater improvement would require between $60 million and $70 million over the next 20 years. But the price of separating the systems would be exponentially higher, according to Spencer. The city invested $52 million between the late 1980s and 1994 in that approach, though that investment wasn't enough to make much of a dent; wastewater and sewage still flow together in roughly 60 percent of the city's pipes. To fully separate the systems would easily cost $100 million — probably even more, Spencer said.

Combined systems, such as Burling-ton's, overflow during storms but have the advantage of purifying most of the rainwater that picks up toxins or debris as it flows off roofs and streets. According to Spencer, a separated system, which allows stormwater to flow directly into the lake, would decrease sewage spills but would actually be worse for water quality.

"You're trading an acute problem for a chronic problem," Spencer said.

His proposed solution? A long-term, incremental approach to improving the efficiency of the current system, which consists of about 130 miles of pipe and three treatment plants across the city.

Improvements are slow, but costs add up quickly. Between 2010 and 2012, the city spent $1.2 million in federal grants on reducing the number of locations where wastewater spills into the Winooski River, wetlands or the lake. Previously, the city had 14 such "outfalls"; now there are five.

Last year, the city spent $734,000 on an "integrated wastewater plan" that imagines a future Burlington with 35 potential system upgrades, including runoff collection tanks, permeable pavement and grassy areas. Spencer said that he expects to put a bond before the taxpayers to pay for some of the improvements, but he didn't know how much he would ask for or when.

The city has also invested in a digital map of the underground pipes in order to visualize and measure which upgrades would be the most cost-effective.

"There's no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot," Spencer said of the bit-by-bit approach.

Meanwhile, in April the Department of Public Works hired a wastewater treatment consultant to analyze the current flawed system. The department is also working with businesses to create pretreatment plans, to dispose of food waste elsewhere or to purify the water before it enters wastewater system.

"Trust me, we stay up at night thinking how we can make it better," Spencer said.

In fact, the state has made significant progress, said Jeff Wennberg, a former Rutland mayor and erstwhile head of the Department of Environmental Conservation who is now commissioner of Rutland Public Works. After Burlington, the Marble City is the second largest municipal abuser of Vermont waterways; it has dumped 3.8 million gallons of untreated wastewater into East and Otter creeks so far this year.

Vermont towns have only been treating wastewater since the mid-20th century — 1953 in Burlington. For centuries before, Wennberg pointed out, plumbing merely served to direct dirty water into the nearest river. Until a few years ago, municipalities only notified residents of a spill days later — or sometimes not at all, Wennberg said.

The 2016 law mandates that towns alert citizens after a discharge, though some still have no way to measure exactly how much sewage is released during a rain. "In recognizing we're many years and many millions of dollars away from achieving our goals on this, we have to be aggressive in notifying the public," Wennberg said.

Old North End resident Todd has come to her own conclusion: She's "way less interested in getting in the water," especially after a big storm. Rather than wait for a Facebook warning, she said, "I assume when it's raining, I don't want to go in the lake."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Muddied Waters: No Clear Solutions for Burlington's Wastewater Problem"