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Dirty Water Flowing Out Of Vt. Sewage Plants After May Malfunctions

Three wastewater treatment facilities in Vermont had malfunctions last week that led to the release of up to 115,000 gallons of partially disinfected or completely un-disinfected water into rivers and streams.

The releases were reported by sewage plant operators to state regulators at the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation.

The two highest volume releases last week were both caused by failed infrastructure; such problems are common among wastewater treatment facilities in Vermont.

In Ludlow, up to 115,000 gallons of water flowed from the facility into the Black River overnight after a chlorine pipe failed sometime on the night of May 19. Operators don’t know when the failure happened or if the pipe delivered insufficient chlorine or no chlorine at all, so the water coming out of the facility was treated (meaning solids had been removed) but not totally disinfected.

Hours after Ludlow officials discovered that problem on the morning of May 20, a motor failed at a pump station in South Burlington near the Chittenden County Correctional Facility, causing the release of 100 to 1,000 gallons of raw sewage at the pump station, according to estimates reported to regulators.

That same morning, officials in Rutland had to deal with raw sewage that came out of a manhole for approximately 10 minutes “as a result of nearby construction of new sewer pipe.”

The state has gone to great lengths to develop water quality plans for approval by the Environmental Protection Agency before the federal agency steps in with its own water quality measures that would necessarily focus on “point source” pollution – places where water flows directly out of a pipe into a waterway – instead of pollution from water runoff that makes up the vast majority of Vermont’s water pollution.

Between 789,022 and 1,551,920 gallons of dirty water has flowed from wastewater treatment plants into Vermont waterways this year.

Since wastewater plants make up just 3 percent of Vermont’s total contribution of polluting phosphorus to Lake Champlain, they have not been a big focus in the discussion around pollution control. With aging infrastructure in many facilities, equipment failures that lead to polluted water entering state waterways are relatively common. So far this year, there have been 15 unauthorized releases of water that wasn’t fully treated and disinfected. According to estimates provided to regulators, those 15 releases add up to between 789,022 and 1,551,920 gallons of dirty water that has flowed from wastewater treatment plants into Vermont waterways this year.

The state also allows municipalities operating a combined sewer system – one that treats water from storm drains and sewage in the same facility – to release overflow when a storm overloads the system. These releases are authorized by the state, and there have been three of them so far in 2015, according to data from the Department of Environmental Conservation. The combined volume of those releases is 250 gallons.

Officials in Ludlow and South Burlington were not immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Update 5/28/2015 1:39 p.m. South Burlington Director of Public Works Justin Rabidoux said Thursday morning that incidents such as the one on May 20 are rare for the city.

“This type of pump failure for us is very atypical,” he said. “We perform weekly inspections and maintenance of our three dozen plus pump stations, which allows us to stay on top of issues.”

Rabidoux said the department also does a full replacement of one pump station per year, "so we never have something that is so aged that it's just failing due to age."

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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