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Aging Infrastructure, Winter Rain Exacerbate Sewage Overflows

AP/Toby Talbot
Rain and melting snow have overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants this winter, like this one in Montpelier, causing many sewage overflows.

Vermont’s on and off again winter has overloaded some of the state’s aging waste water treatment systems, resulting in hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage spilling into rivers and streams.

Heavy rain and a January thaw followed by more rain this month dumped a lot of water over frozen snow and ice. And all that water strains sewage systems.

“These wintertime events are particularly disruptive,” said Mary Borg, the acting program manager of the wastewater division at the Department of Environmental Conservation. Winter rain is a problem, she says, because there’s really nowhere for the water to go.

“The water that usually can run off and hopefully infiltrate into greener areas is actually just running straight off the road and so forth into these combined systems,” she said.

By combined systems, Borg means those that send wastewater and stormwater through the same pipe to the treatment plant. The sheer volume of stormwater overwhelms the plant’s capacity, forcing the plant to release the untreated water into rivers and streams.

The state maintains a web-based alert system to inform the public about sewage overflows. The alerts have piled up in recent weeks.

Borg said the goal of the alerts is to warn people about possible health threats, especially in the warmer summer months when they might be swimming or boating.

The combined sewer systems are a particular problem in cities like Rutland and Vergennes that have aging infrastructure. Upgrades are expensive, although the state has ordered municipalities to come up with a plan to address the issue

Yet not all of the recent overflows are due to the weather. In St. Albans this week, a painter working in the treatment plant knocked over a ladder that closed a valve. The result was over a million gallons of treated but un-disinfected effluent flowed into a tributary of Lake Champlain.  

Marty Manahan, the St. Albans public works director, said the incident happened during upgrades to the treatment plant

Correction 10:45 a.m. Feb. 11, 2019 Post updated to correct the spelling of Mary Borg's last name, which was listed incorrectly on the state's website. 

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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