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State Delays Public Reporting Of Sewage Dump, Claims Timeliness Not Required

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Wastewater treatment facilities make up less than five percent of Vermont's overall phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, but sewage spills also pose threats to public health.

State officials missed a deadline required by law to notify the public about a sewage overflow in Rutland in which up to 10,000 gallons of untreated sewage and storm water flowed into East Creek.

The overflow was permitted by state regulators under a “combined sewer overflow” (CSO) permit. State data shows Rutland officials reported the overflow to state regulators within the required 24 hours after the spill. State officials received notification of the overflow by email at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, July 27.

Notice of the spill wasn’t posted to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s public website, though, until sometime after 5 p.m. Thursday. That's despite a law that requires the department to notify the public within 24 hours of when it learns of a spill.

James Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, is a vocal critic of the state’s regulation of wastewater facilities. He said in an interview that early public notification is vital after a spill.

“From a public health point of view, timeliness is everything,” he said. “It does not do anybody any good to find out about a sewage spill two days after you’ve exposed yourself to it.”

Ehlers said Vermonters should be aware of the risks they’re taking when they use public waters, and said the state has the capacity to do better.

“Clearly it’s just not a priority,” he said. “Neither for the Agency of Natural Resources nor the Department of Health, who I hold even more responsible in this debacle than anyone.”

Ehlers said the Health Department should do more to protect Vermonters from risks to public health.

Browsing the department’s website, Ehlers laughed.

“This is like an Onion article,” he said, referring to the satirical media outlet. “It tells me to what temperature to cook my pork chop. How about telling me when somebody dumps 70,000 gallons of human excrement in my swimming hole?”

The department that is responsible for overseeing wastewater dumping, the Department of Environmental Conservation, is working on improving the timeliness of those reports.

Pete Laflamme, the director of DEC’s watershed management division, said in an email Monday that the delay happened because the staff involved with overseeing wastewater facilities were all doing other things.

“In the case of the event that you mention,” he wrote, “of the three staff that are responsible for posting these events on the web, two were on leave that Wednesday, and one was in the field conducting WWTF [Wastewater Treatment Facility] inspections. The person in the field that day posted the event at the end of the business day, and it then appears on the web the following morning.”

Laflamme said delays like that one are “exactly the reason why we are moving to a direct web-based submittal, where the operators will report to us via the web, this report simultaneously being uploaded to our webpage.”

He added that the state is not actually required to post notice of sewage overflows online.

"The web posting of CSOs [Combined Sewer Overflows] was our idea, there is not a 24 hour requirement to post." - Pete Laflamme, Department of Environmental Conservation

“The web posting of CSOs was our idea, there is not a 24 hour requirement to post,” he wrote. “That said, we do strive to get the information up as quickly as possible, and the web based reporting process, once enacted, will be a major step forward in that effort.”

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This 2013 memo from the deputy director of the state's Watershed Management Division asks municipalities to report sewage dumps within 24 hours.

  A memo addressed to municipal sewage plant operators from 2013, signed by Laflamme’s deputy, asked towns operating combined sewer systems – the kind that are permitted to have sewage overflows – to report those overflows to the state.

“As you are aware,” the memo begins, “the discharge of sanitary sewage from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) poses a threat to human health and the environment.”

The memo requests that towns notify the state within 24 hours of an overflow, and says that “[w]hen the Secretary of Natural Resources receives notice of a discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment, the Secretary must provide notice to the public by posting this information on the Agency’s website within 24 hours of receiving the notification.”

Laflamme, when confronted with the memo, said public notification of spills has improved.

"DEC is striving to provide public notice of combined sewer overflow events to the public as quickly as possible," he wrote in an email. "As recently as two years ago, Vermonters had no online way to learn about these events. They now can learn about these events on DEC’s website.  DEC currently aims to post information about overflow events on its website within 24 hours of receiving it and plans to make the posting process nearly instantaneous in the near future."

The memo also references a state statute, which suggests that web posting of the overflows was not, in fact, DEC’s idea as Laflamme stated. 

"The secretary of natural resources shall post publicly notice of an illegal discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment on its website within 24 hours of the agency's receipt of notification of the discharge." - Vermont State Law

“The secretary of natural resources,” the law reads, “shall post publicly notice of an illegal discharge that may pose a threat to human health or the environment on its website within 24 hours of the agency’s receipt of notification of the discharge.”

When he heard the law read aloud, Ehlers paused.

“That’s the position we’ve held all along,” he said.

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