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After A Sewage Spill In Winooski, Public Notification Late And Lacking

Looking over the Winooski River to a building on a cloudy day.
Angela Evancie
Sewage from the city of Winooski was spilling into the Winooski River for five days starting last week, but the public wasn't notified until more than three days after the spill was discovered.

The city of Winooski was vacuuming sewage out of a grease-clogged sewer line over the weekend after city workers noticed that catch basins in the city’s stormwater system were emitting “sewage-like odors.”

The contents of a sewer had been spilling into a storm drain for days, then flowing into the Winooski River, but because of staff and technology constraints, officials failed to notify the public about the problem until Tuesday, more than 24 hours after the spill was stopped.

City officials called state environmental officials a little after noon Friday, Jan. 22 "reporting that they had noticed a sewage-like odor coming from a storm drain," according to a timeline provided by Ernie Kelley of the state's Wastewater Management Program.

"Evidently they had first noticed the odor several days before calling... but were not sure if it was sewage or just a rotting egg odor from decomposing organic matter or a natural gas leak," Kelley wrote in an email.

After verifying the odor was not from natural gas, the city investigated more and then confirmed the spill Friday at 5:17 p.m., Kelley said. But by Friday afternoon, when city officials called the state to report that it was sewage, it was too late for state environmental staff to post public notification.

"That call came in just as Jeff [the state employee responsible for posting notification of the spill] was leaving his desk to catch the 5:30 p.m. bus from Montpelier back to the Richmond Park and Ride, and he was unable to post the incident to the web at that time without missing the bus," Kelley said in his email timeline. "On Monday morning 1/25, Jeff went directly to Winooski to investigate, confirmed that there was a release of sewage to the storm system, returned to the office and promptly posted the event to the web."

According to VPR's automated scrapes of the notification website, notice of the Winooski spill must have been posted sometime between 4 p.m. Monday and 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Municipal officials, starting this year, can also publish reports directly to the public notification website without depending on state staff to do so. That isn't required, however.

The state’s notification to the public about the spill, based on information from an in-person visit and Winooski city officials, said that “[t]he city hired the Hartigan Co. to clean the brick sewer and remove blockages and/or debris using a vactor truck and to inspect the sewer using a camera.” It continues: “Once the cause of the sewer leak and the condition of the brick sewer are determined, the city will determine what is the best long term fix.”

The city estimated that 1,000 to 10,000 gallons of polluted water leaked from the sewage system and “into the foundation drain of an adjacent apartment building.” That drain, in turn, “is believed” to be connected to the city’s stormwater system, which dumps its contents into the city’s namesake river. The notification also said that the estimated amount of sewage “may not be a good estimate.”

It also said officials hadn’t yet discovered the source of the problem.

“As of [Monday,] 1/25/2016 the specific location and cause of the suspected sewer leak has not been determined,” the notification says, adding that “[t]his information will be updated when/as additional information is available.”

In an interview Wednesday, Winooski City Manager Katherine Decarreau provided additional information that was not available online. She said the problem had been solved since Monday.

“We stopped it leaking, we believe, and … I’m going to wait for the final determination on Friday,” Decarreau said Wednesday.

Decarreau didn’t say Wednesday why the information provided to state officials and posted publicly online was more than 24 hours out-of-date, despite assertions it would remain current.

“Once I knew that there was no contamination and that we had cleared the plug, I moved on,” she said, “so I haven’t really looped back and gotten a final report yet, just because they’re still working on the problem.”

She said she plans to publicly release an “after action” report on the spill “so that we know that dates and times of everything.”

Since 2006, under Vermont law, the Agency of Natural Resources has been required to update its sewage spill notification website within 24 hours of learning about a spill “that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.” The law was crafted to keep the public informed about the dates and times of sewage spills – information that could be especially useful to the public if a spill is ongoing.

In this case, the public was not notified about a spill – one that reportedly started on Wednesday Jan. 20 and, according to Decarreau, ended Monday Jan. 25 – until after the problem was solved. 

Decarreau said the characterization that the city was spilling raw sewage into the Winooski River was misleading.

“Your representation was that we had dumped raw sewage since last Wednesday,” Decarreau said in an email Tuesday evening. “In fact we experienced a large grease plug on a line last Wednesday. We discovered it Friday morning. It did not leak raw sewage but contaminated groundwater from a compromised brick sewer line.”

On Wednesday, she clarified: “Liquid leaked but no solid. So there was never any solid released. That’s not necessarily a good thing.”

"I just don't want anybody to get the sense that we had a pipe with raw poop running into the lake for a week because that's not exactly what it was." - Katherine Decarreau, Winooski city manager

Decarreau said she doesn’t want residents to think solid human feces was flowing into the river. It was just the liquid that’d been in the sewer line with the solid human feces.

“I just don’t want anybody to get the sense that we had a pipe with raw poop running into the lake for a week because that’s not exactly what it was,” she said.

Update Jan. 28, 6:15 p.m. This post was updated to include additional information from the state's timeline and to remove a sentence indicating that the city may have violated the statutory notice requirement. 

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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