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In Johnson, no one knows how the wastewater treatment plant is faring

 A truck drives through water on a road as the sun shines
Joey Palumbo
Vermont Public
A truck moves through Johnson on Tuesday afternoon.

For communities that have seen flooding sweep through their downtowns, the safety of the drinking water supply is one major concern. But there's another municipal worry many areas are facing now as well: whether or not their wastewater systems have been able to hold up under the barrage of water.

In Johnson, the treatment plant has been underwater since Monday. That is not good.

Dan Copp hasn’t gotten much sleep over the last few days.

"Up since five o'clock Monday morning," Copp said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I got, uh, about an hour's sleep last night at one point but, um, you know, and I'm gonna try to get another hour's sleep here and, uh, hopefully that'll get me through the night."

Flood waters in Johnson, photographed Tuesday.
Joey Palumbo
Vermont Public
Flood waters in Johnson, photographed Tuesday.

Copp is the chief operator for the wastewater plants in both Morrisville and Johnson. In Morrisville, the drinking water supply was compromised by flooding, and the wastewater system fared okay. But in Johnson, it was the opposite.

"We knew it was coming," Copp said. "We just didn't know it was gonna be this bad."

Live updates: Vermonters take stock of flood damage, begin recovery

The wastewater plant in Johnson is old, and it sits in a low-lying part of town, not far from where the Gihon River meets the Lamoille. It’s seen a lot of flooding in its hundred years or so, but the volume of rainfall that came down this week was unprecedented.

"That plant is designed for 270,000 gallons a day. And when I left, the flow was coming in at 1.25 million gallons — 4 to 5 times our design flow, what was coming into the plant," Copp said.

And then the plant itself flooded, and staffers had to evacuate. The town cut the power supply to the village, including the treatment plant, so Copp said he has no idea what’s happening inside.

 Heavy machinery sits in a flooded parking lot in front of a market and post office building
Joey Palumbo
Vermont Public
Johnson was hard-hit by flooding, and officials were forced to cut the power supply to the village. Photographed Tuesday, July 11.

"Our remote monitoring system won't even connect. Um, which doesn't bode well," Copp said. "So we don't even know if the plant’s running on generator right now or not, if the generator is underwater. And if it gets over the floodgates, then you're talking computers, motors, VFDs, you know, everything.So, yeah. No, we are completely in the dark right now."

Copp says there’s definitely been some partially treated sewage discharge into the river, and he alerted the state. That sounds disturbing, but given the volume of water flowing through, it’s incredibly diluted.

The full extent of the discharge and the damage to the facility itself won’t be known until Copp can get in and assess.

In the meantime, he’s taking his naps — when he can get them — at the Morrisville treatment plant. He can’t get to home to Danville anyway, with all the road closures. And besides, maintaining the wastewater system is more than a job.

"You'll find with the wastewater operators that, you know, these plants are our second lives. You’ve got 1,300 connections here in Morrisville. And, uh, well, just as many and more, including the college in Johnson that, you know, they rely on being able to drink their water, flush their toilets."

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So he’ll pop out the folding cot for as long as he has to. But once he gets free, he’s got something urgent on his to-do list.

"I know one thing I'm going to purchase is a pillow," Copp said, laughing. "For next time."

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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