Our Proud Heritage of Shit-Dumping

If you happened to be hanging around Fort Cassin Point on Christmas Eve, perhaps you noticed an unusual smell. Perhaps not; but I sure hope you didn’t drink the water.

The State of Vermont legally permitted the City of Vergennes to dump 467,000 gallons of sewage and stormwater into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain on Christmas Eve. Ho ho ho.

That lovely tidbit from the Facebook page of our friends at Lake Champlain International. In case you have trouble visualizing 467,000 gallons of sewage and stormwater, LCI helpfully points out that it’s equivalent to “about 65 tractor-trailer milk tankers.”

Welcome to Vermont, kiddies!

Welcome to Vermont, kiddies!

Mmmm, good. I hope the critters at the Fort Cassin/Otter Creek Wildlife Management Area didn’t mind the state’s creative “Wildlife Management Through Sewage” technique. Or perhaps they’ve gotten used to shipments of Vergennes’ untreated crap, since state regulation of sewage and stormwater discharges is downright laughable — especially for a state with such a strong, and often unwarranted, reputation for environmental purity.

The comments on LCI’s post are often endearingly innocent: “How could this happen?” “How is this allowed?” Stuff like that.

Well, not only is it allowed, but it’s standard operating procedure in our Clean, Green state.

James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, …says sewage spills and overflows from Vermont’s wastewater treatment systems are common occurrences.

But the public is only notified when they’re exceptionally large, as was the case in April 2005, when a Burlington sewer line ruptured, spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage in the Winooski River for days before it was repaired.

That, from a July 2013 piece by Seven Days’ Ken Picard, outlining the appalling sketchiness of state policy on releases of stormwater and sewage. By law, he writes, the state is required to post online any illegal discharge that “may pose a threat to human health or the environment” within 24 hours of learning about it — but it may take days or even weeks for the state to learn of a discharge from a municipal wastewater treatment operator.

And while the state is required to post the information online, just try to find it. I tried, and got thoroughly lost in a morass of bureaucratic jargon.

Now, if there’s a torrential downpour, just about any system will be overloaded. But many of Vermont’s municipal systems are outdated. We haven’t faced the issue because, well, we can’t afford to.

This is part of our decades of noncompliance with the Clean Water Act regarding Lake Champlain, and one reason why the EPA has had to step in and force Vermont to clean up its act.

It’s sad, if not surprising. Too often, Vermont fails to live up to its own self-image. We react with horror when new things seem to pose a threat, like ridgeline wind and the Vermont Gas pipeline. We’re much more passive about the bad things we’ve always done, like inadequate water treatment, unregulated junkyards, and the discharge of particulate matter from thousands of residential woodstoves. (The latter is largely responsible for our highest-in-the-nation rate of adult asthma. Not West Virginia or Texas; good old Vermont.)


10 thoughts on “Our Proud Heritage of Shit-Dumping

  1. brucepost

    I appreciate your raising this issue, and I also value the work of LCI. There is a wide gap between how we present ourselves to the world as an environmental exemplar and how we really are. We see photos labeled “Vermont Beauty” in news outlets, but rarely is heard a disparaging word about the decidedly less than beautiful. Therefore, as I indicated, I thank you for your colorful description of this situation, which is another way of characterizing how “green” we really are!

  2. chloramine

    Maybe you’re too new to Vermont to appreciate how many people have been working to try to bring about change where our water policies are concerned; and how incredibly frustrating it is to see no progress year after year. Going back to the Dean administration when stormwater permits piled up without renewal and more. An example: a couple years ago Ken Picard wrote an article about the use of formaldehyde at large farms, especially in Franklin County, where the cows walk through the formaldehyde footbath and then the used product (which comes to the farm has a hazardous substance) is dumped into manure pits and land applied, some of it near waterways. This would seem like a relatively easy issue to deal with. First, the farmers have alternatives. Second, they could be required to dispose of the formaldehyde product in the same way it comes to them, as a hazardous waste. But no, that is too much to ask for. The product is protected by the Ag Agency as an “economic poison”. Yep, that’s the term. A known carcinogen is being disposed of in our environment, people report serious health effects around the areas where the manure is spread, and the practice is defended by the Vermont Department of Health and the Ag Agency. A stupid problem with an easy solution and instead of trying to address it, state agencies armor up to protect the polluter. This occurs over and over again, and it doesn’t seem to matter who is in office or who they appoint to state agencies. At this time we have two supposedly excellent people who really care about water in ANR at the top, but they are the ones under whose reign permits were issued to fill Class A headwater streams above 2500 feet. When presented with evidence of problems, they defend their staff. Please look further, there is no passivity going on where clean water is concerned, but people in trenches get no help from state government, and the federal reps love to hold their press conferences waving around the millions of dollars they get for Lake Champlain, while the lake gets worse and worse. Another example is Agri-Mark in Middlebury. The plant is one of the beneficiaries of the VGS pipeline, but it also is a major polluter of Lake Champlain, exceeding its phosphorus allowance at the Middlebury wastewater treatment plant year after year, and after the corporations has promised not to use phosphate detergents at all. So what did ANR do in response recently? Approved the requested increase in phosphorus levels to be discharged into Otter Creek and Lake Champlain. If anyone thinks ANR is protecting they environment, they haven’t actually worked on trying to address these issues. Between James Ehlers, Lori Fisher, Chris Kilian, Kim Greenwood and me we could write story after story after story about the efforts we’ve made for more than a decade to make changes so that these kinds of things stop happening. When it comes down to it, as Deb Markowitz and the ANR administration under Douglas seem to both agree, their “customer” is the regulated community. Yep, get those permits out the door as quickly as possible. No matter that they are not protecting the environment.

    1. Annette Smith

      Ken’s stories on the formaldehyde issue:
      First, is there a problem?
      “Lynn Metcalf, program chief for the Agency of Natural Resources’ hazardous waste management program, confirms that only unused supplies of formaldehyde are considered industrial waste and must be disposed of as such. Discarded formaldehyde is “not a hazardous waste and … is no longer covered under our rules.””

      Second, as usual, the state finds no problem
      “Balmcom also notes that the air testing was done between May 1 and June 1, which he believes was too late to gather meaningful samples.”

  3. Annette Smith

    On air pollution… I’ve worked on several air pollution cases, including outdoor wood boilers and auto body shops. The first hurdle the neighbor of the OWB has to climb is it cannot be just one home. Doesn’t matter how many people live in the home, it is a “private” nuisance and therefore, as the head of compliance and his field officer painfully told a family with two children who had medical evidence in the form of blood testing showing they all had high levels of heavy metals, unless another neighbor was complaining, there was nothing they could do. It was litigated, you can read the short court decision here. https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/gtc/environmental/ENVCRTOpinions2000-2004/ecrt1801003dodmsj.pdf. The case is from 2003. The other thing that showed up in the search I just did was the plaintiff (husband)’s obituary. He died in 2013 of liver cancer. Vermont’s failures have real costs in terms of human health and it is an area (environmental health) that has no champions, committees, or place in the state government architecture.

    Ready for more? This is heavy stuff. Ken Picard did a story about a tragic situation where a mother died of carbon monoxide, leaving her grown daughter to care for the adult son who was wheelchair bound. http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/outdoor-wood-boilers-appropriate-technology-or-deadly-device/Content?oid=2137800. I sat in the courtroom as the sister testified that wood smoke clogged his airways and made it so he couldn’t eat or breathe. Then I heard a supposed air expert testify that there was no harm being done to the brother and sister because of the wood smoke. It was surreal. And it only got worse when the judge found that even if there was a health issue, wood smoke on neighboring property is not trespass, and found against the brother and sister. They have since abandoned the home and last I heard were living in a camper.

    But wait, there’s more. Once again, Ken Picard chronicled the story of residents of a mobile home with with an MTBE-contaminated aquifer next to a quarry that wanted to blast with higher levels of explosives and deepen 75 feet. In fact Ken did 3 stories and Kevin Kelley did one.
    1. http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/home-alone/Content?oid=2135842
    2. http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/tenants-score-in-fight-over-water-quality/Content?oid=2134779
    3. http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/ms-fix-it/Content?oid=2127324
    4. http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/court-oks-quarry-expansion-over-neighbors-opposition/Content?oid=2130849
    Be sure to note that after what appeared to be a victory, the court threw out all proposed protections and gave the company everything they wanted. And in that case the AG’s office got involved and only made matters worse, also siding with the quarry. The court system is just as much a part of the problem as state regulators and politicians.

    As I said in my first comment, there are a lot of stories, and not many of them have happy endings. More than once I have had to advise people their best option is to move, and in most cases that has meant abandoning the home. It is a harsh reality, and it is not any one issue, it happens with agriculture, energy, mining, drinking water and wastewater treatment. Vermont has a pesticide advisory council whose mission was supposed to be to reduce pesticide use in Vermont. Instead it has become the place that issues the permits. Power lines, railroads, roadsides, spread toxic brews all over the state.

    And yes, people are sick and dying in unknown but possibly high numbers because for whatever reason the state has chosen to support pollution and polluters instead of bringing people together to find solutions. What is happening at DEC now? They are holding lots of sessions about “leaning”. That means they are working on how to be more efficient at issuing permits.

  4. patricia crocker

    Thank you for bringing light to this problem. Instead of putting so much emphasis on carbon reduction and taxes, we should be investing in technology to process waste and clean up the lake and the environment.

  5. Laurel Casey

    I post these articles to my Facebook page- with 2,700 friends from all over the country. If this horror begins to affect tourism, maybe we have a chance for some progress.

  6. Annette Smith

    I guess I made a mistake posting my follow-up comments using my real name, since you haven’t posted those comments. I wasted time finding news stories to provide more insight into your column. The commenting function on this blog is very annoying and I didn’t intentionally not use my real name the first time, it’s just what came up when I logged in.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sorry, but I’m not your slave. During the holidays I’ve had a lot of stuff going on, including a trip out of state and some family business to take care of. (I was gone all day today.) The approval/disapproval of your posts had nothing to do with using your real name, it was just a coincidence of timing.

      I’ve enabled comment moderation on this blog to block spam, personal attacks, and other rhetorical excesses. I have never blocked a comment for its content or the identity of its author. (Just ask Robert Maynard and Joe Benning, two of my more frequent commenters.) If you find the commenting function annoying, I invite you to reduce your annoyance load by not commenting.


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