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Johnson's wastewater facility completely destroyed

 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.

When floodwaters rose in Johnson earlier this week, sanitation staff were forced to abandon the town’s wastewater facility. Electricity was cut off in the village and the extent of the damage was unknown until it was safe to return. Dan Copp, Johnson’s wastewater chief, can now say just how bad the damage was.

Copp runs the facility and was finally able to get back in at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

"We walked in to 100% destruction of the plant," Copp said.

Tables were overturned; file cabinets had floated into different rooms. Flood water rose up to seven feet in the mechanical and office spaces. And everything is just covered in mud.

"Every motor, every pump, every panel, every bit of electrical, anything. We had all of our records gone. Our backup of our main computer, which is on a thumb drive, gone. We haven't found that yet. Just complete devastation," Copp said.

Previously from Vermont Public: In Johnson, no one knows how the wastewater treatment plant is faring

While they’re pulling things out and documenting what’s been destroyed, they’re also furiously trying to figure out a plan to treat at least some of the town’s wastewater.

"I'll be honest, we're days, possibly weeks away from even being able to do that," Copp said.

For now, all of Johnson’s effluent is going directly into the Lamoille River. But Copp cautions that the assumption you may have in your head of a flushed toilet going directly into the river isn’t quite accurate.

"Well, it's combined with shower water, with dishwasher water, with washing machine water with, you know, so much more water that it's diluted tremendously. And then it's going into a river that is running 10 times its height right now," Copp said.

But it’s absolutely an environmental and safety hazard, and needs to get fixed.

 A desk, papers, desk chair and shelf are toppled over while sitting in flood water.
Dan Copp
A glimpse of the damage Johnson's wastewater facility is facing after "complete" destruction following this week's flooding event.

In the short term, Copp says the Federal Emergency Management Agency is helping to try to locate a mobile treatment unit they think might be somewhere out in the Midwest. That could treat about 20,000 gallons a day. But that would only account for 20% of the normal flow in Johnson.

Johnson’s not quite alone in its predicament. Twenty-three wastewater facilities were either offline or allowing not-fully-treated sewage into waterways. As of Thursday afternoon, 12 facilities were still compromised. And as with so many structures in the state, these treatment plants were built to withstand hundred-year floods that are now coming much more frequently, and with potentially even more ferocity.

The long-term fix for these facilities is going to get expensive. In Johnson alone, the dollar figure starts to rise in Copp’s head as he starts to tally.

"You know, this is a, from the boot estimate I mean, I believe we're probably in the $6-8 million range. You know, it was in 1995, six months after they built the plant, they had a catastrophic flood. During that flood, they rebuilt the plant. It was a $2.5 million insurance claim then," Copp said.

"So we're now, 25 years later — I think you can probably triple, quadruple that number, easily. So we may be looking at 10 million dollars easily to get that plan operable again and running properly."

And Copp wonders: for that kind of money, could you just build a new plant altogether, somewhere on higher ground? But that’s a decision that’s going to take time as well as money.

Meanwhile, Copp’s working on a temporary fix. Usually the plant relies on biological treatment — microorganisms that break down organic waste. He can’t get that up and running quickly, but he thinks they might be able to find a way to at least filter solids out before they hit the river.

"It means probably staffing that plant 24/7 with two people. We can make it happen, I think, but, there's a lot of moving parts and, and everything down there right now has to be done without electricity because we can't touch our electrical down there. So that just is one more monkey wrench," Copp said.

And with post-flood cleanup efforts producing even more wastewater than normal in town, the complications just keep coming.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources

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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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