Sewage Spills Common In Lake Champlain Basin

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(Host) When a Burlington wastewater plant released 2.5 million gallons of stormwater and untreated sewage into Lake Champlain this week, it was not an isolated incident.

A state database shows that sewage spills are relatively common throughout the Lake Champlain basin.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The Burlington spill is the latest entry on a state database that chronicles month-by-month the unplanned and polluting sewage overflows.

Enosburg Falls released 5,583 gallons of untreated sewage into the Mississquoi River on April 11. Proctor made the list on March 18 for a 4,500 gallon spill into the Otter Creek. And the town of Fair Haven logged in on March 21st with a 65,000 gallon release of un-disinfected effluent into the Castleton River.

Some of the spills are caused by aging infrastructure. But in Fair Haven, the problem was a new piece of equipment. Pete Laramie is the chief operator at the plant.

(Laramie) "We had a brand new system that was in place. We had just replaced it back in November, still working the bugs out of it."

(Dillon) A suction line that was supposed to carry chlorine from a tank to treat the sewage became disconnected. Operators fixed the problem in two hours. But by then 65,000 gallons had flowed downstream without being disinfected. Laramie says it’s fortunate that the river flow was high that day.

(Laramie) "Just the fact that there was a lot more water in the river, it was running faster, there was a lot more aeration. There was a lot more dispersal. I guess if you had to say there was a good time of year for something like this to happen, that was probably it, although there never is a good time of year."

(Dillon) State officials want to learn more about the various sewage spills to see if the trend is increasing, and to pinpoint the cause.

(Mears) "Just the fact that we have sewage treatment plants in place isn’t enough. We have to maintain them and we have to maintain the sewer pipes."

(Dillon) David Mears is state environmental conservation commissioner.

(Mears) "In part this recent spill from the Burlington plant has highlighted for me to dig into this and learn more about why the spills are happening."

(Dillon) Mears said aging infrastructure is sometimes to blame. And he says the problem could be made worse by federal budget cuts.

(Mears) "This comes right on the heels of a decision by the federal government to cut the budget for infrastructure funding to the state. Here in Vermont we’re facing a cut of approximately million in funding for our drinking water and sewer systems."

(Dillon) Environmentalists say the Burlington spill and others add to a chronic pollution problem in Lake Champlain and other waterways.

Louis Porter is the Champlain Lakekeeper with the Conservation Law Foundation.

(Porter) "We are all grateful today that the weather is too cold for many people to be swimming. But we shouldn’t be counting on that to protect public health. And even in cases where wastewater effluent is disinfected it still can have a significant ecological impact on the lake in terms of phosphorus pollution and algae and weed growth."

(Dillon) Porter says the Burlington incident also shows the state needs to upgrade its stormwater and wastewater systems.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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