As Vermont entered its third day of cleanup from the remnants of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Irene, one question remained unanswered: Just how much raw sewage was dumped into Vermont's waterways after more than a dozen sewage treatment plants were overcome by the deluge?
In short: We don't know shit about, well, shit.
Part of the problem is that the state's top environmental regulator — the Agency of Natural Resources — was deluged Sunday night with effluent-soaked river water when the Winooski River jumped its banks in Waterbury and flooded much of the state office complex where ANR is located.
It'll be weeks — possibly months — before ANR employees can return to their workstations in the sprawling, century-old network of buildings. Five buildings were impacted with many offices flooded to shoulder-high levels. A chalky, gritty residue coats much of the interior. Their email system was restored late Wednesday morning, but before that they had no power, no phones and no access to email.
And, neither did the towns where the sewer plants failed. That means neither the regulated, nor the regulator, could determine what was being pumped into Vermont's rivers and lakes.
ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz passed all questions about the state's response to failed water and sewer systems to ANR deputy secretary Chris Recchia, as well as Justin Johnson, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.
"We are dealing with our own recovery effort here in Waterbury," Markowitz said.
Recchia told Seven Days that field teams were being dispatched Wednesday afternoon to get some initial reports on how much damage had been done. He estimated that roughly a dozen towns had their sewer systems compromised in some fashion.
"The main problems are related to the communities that have been isolated and where bridges have been knocked out," said Recchia. Sewer and water pipes are often mounted beneath bridges.
Along with checking wastewater systems, ANR teams will be testing water quality and air quality, said Recchia. That's because in addition to raw sewage, home heating oil and fuel oil spilled into the state's waterways along with other toxic debris.
Another dozen-plus towns have issued boil water notices that urge residents to boil water before drinking it. Richmond expects to be under a boil water order for several days, perhaps longer, said selectman Erik Filkorn. To top it off, the town's sewer system has been compromised because a tree is jammed against a sewer line under one of the town's bridges. Richmond residents are urged to use only boiled or bottled water for drinking and cooking and are being told not to let tap water get in their eyes, noses or mouths.
A number of other towns have similar sewer stories, including Waterbury, Northfield and several towns in Southern Vermont. In Queechee, for example, sewer lines were washed away with bridges and other infrastructure.
Recchia said ANR usually receives reports from individual town operators to determine what plants have been knocked offline and how much effluent has been discharged into the waters. But, ANR's email system was knocked out and in many communities there is no landline phone service and limited cell service.
"That has made it very challenging, to say the least," said Recchia. ANR is working to find temporary office space to house its employees and is relying on its regional offices to help monitor the environmental impacts of the flood.
ANR will not issue fines against municipal operators who released untreated sewage into the waters because their systems were compromised by the floods.
The recent floods, coupled with sewer plant failures during the massive spring flooding, bring to light a larger problem facing the state — inadequate water and sewer infrastructure that can handle these increased flooding events.
"In the wake of these significant weather events, we're going to need to reevaluate our infrastructure, both in terms of capacity and operationally," said Recchia. "We're going to need to apply some lessons learned from these events."
Earlier this week, the state Department of Health and the Agency of Agriculture issued this food warning for anyone growing fruit and vegetables that may have come into contact with flood waters:
Flood waters could have been contaminated and people are urged to discard above-ground fruit or vegetables that have matured and cannot be washed and cooked prior to consumption. Produce to be concerned about are lettuce, greens, herbs, tomatoes and squash that have already developed fruit. Root crops can be consumed as long as they are thoroughly washed and cooked. It is difficult to remove all the contamination with just plain rinsing.
Any produce in question should be thrown away.
Never taste food to determine it is safe. Some foods may look and smell fine, but can still make you sick.
If you have any doubt, throw it out.
If you have a private well that has been covered by flood waters, assume that your water source is contaminated and boil water for 5 minutes before using to drink, cook, brush teeth, etc.
In Burlington's Intervale, which was inundated with floodwaters from a swollen Winooski River Monday and Tuesday (watch this incredible time-lapse video from Meghan O'Rourke), farmers are counting up their losses.
Hillary Martin, of Digger's Mirth Collective Farm, estimates the farmers lost $100,000 in vegetable crops. "We had just finished paying off the money we had borrowed to recoup from the spring flooding, too," said Martin. She estimates enough vegetables were salvaged to pay off the farm's remaining bills for the year, but there will be no money left after that.
Martin, and other Intervale farmers, are accustomed to flooding. But Martin said this flood felt and looked different.
"This flood feels like it carried a lot more hazardous materials with it than other floods," said Martin. "Ususually when it floods down here the water comes up through the wetlands first and I feel as if the wetlands do their work and filter the water first. But, this time the water jumped the banks and went right into the fields."
Martin and other farmers follow plenty of guidelines to ensure that the vegetables they harvest have not been contaminated by potentially potent floodwaters.
On Monday, along with the floodwaters, Martin was greeted with new federal regulations that would govern when and where farmers can plant in flooded areas. According to the proposal from the federal Food and Drug Administration, farmers wouldn't be able to plant in a flooded area until at least 60 days after the waters receded.
In Vermont, with such a short growing season and many bottomland farms, that would drastically shorten and already short growing season, said Martin.
"I understand that people are concerned," Martin noted, "but I keep thinking, 'Why aren't they focusing on the source of the problem, rather than putting more rules on farmers?'"