Photo By Adam Federman, VTDigger
Jeff Wennberg, Rutland public works commissioner
By Alan J. Keays, VTDigger
RUTLAND – The state is investigating a nearly 1 million gallon overflow of untreated sewage into East and Otter creeks earlier this month in Rutland City, according city Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg.
The state could fine the municipality for the spill.
The treatment plant worker who was on duty at the time has been disciplined.
“He basically didn’t respond in a manner that a trained and licensed operator should have responded to the circumstances that were happening at the time,” Wennberg said Saturday, Aug. 26. “He acknowledged the error, he apologized. … He didn’t make any excuses.”
A 50 cent “lousy fuse” blew at the River Street pump station, kicking off a series of events that led to the spill that began in the early morning hours of Aug. 5 and continued for about nine hours before it was detected and stopped, Wennberg said.
The sewer plant operator on duty at the plant, whom Wennberg would not name but said was experienced in his job, was placed on paid administrative leave while the city conducted a review of the incident.
The city then “negotiated” with the union representing the worker about the disciplinary action that would be taken, and reached an agreement Friday, the public works commissioner said.
Because it is a personnel matter, Wennberg said, he could not reveal what the disciplinary action will be.
The fuse blew around 1 a.m. on Aug. 5, Wennberg said, and wasn’t detected until other employees came into work later that morning. They quickly changed the fuse, stopping the overflow.
During the spill, alarms sounded in the control room, and the worker discovered that there was “very low flow” at that time, but that wasn’t all that unusual given that it was in the early morning hours, Wennberg said
One of those key alarms did not sound because it was later discovered that the settings were wrong, the public works director said.
Wennberg said the operator should have looked at monitors for the River Street pump station, but for some reason he didn’t.
“The only explanation was, ‘It didn’t occur to me,’” Wennberg said the employee reported.
There is “no evidence,” the public works director said, that the operator was asleep or impaired in any way.
“He was on the grounds the entire time,” Wennberg said. “The responses to the alarms that he did make and the activities that were recorded were verified.”
Rutland’s sewage treatment plant, Wennberg said, is the only one in the state that is staffed around the clock and has a 24/7 monitoring system.
“We don’t just rely on one,” Wennberg said. “We rely on both.”
Even if it were caught right away, he said, some amount of wastewater would still have spilled into the creeks before the problem could be corrected.
James Ehlers, Lake Champlain International executive director, who has been advocating for more to be done to prevent overflows from occurring and to protect waterways, said Sunday Aug. 27 that he has questions about the incident.
“It doesn’t make sense to me how for 9½ hours this continued unabated and the problem is a 50 cent fuse,” Ehlers said.
The incident shows that more redundancies need to be built into the system.
“A multi-million dollar system intended to protect tens of thousands of people and the economy is placed in the hands of one frail human being and a 50-cent fuse?” Ehlers asked. “A major, major frontline defense for public health, for 9½ hours in one of our largest cities, and no one was flying that plane.”
Sewer overflows, in Rutland and other communities in the state, have prompted calls for greater efforts to protect waterways.
Typically during heavy rainstorms in Rutland City, a large combined stormwater overflow from a big rain event in the city could total over 3 million gallons, Wennberg said. The majority of that water is stormwater – water washing over streets, roofs and parking lots. The wastewater component of that combined storm overflow is very small, Wennberg said.
During the Aug. 5 event, Wennberg said, it was only untreated sewage.
Wennberg, vacationing in North Carolina at the time of the incident, was notified and posted a message to the department’s Facebook page warning the public to avoid contact with water in the overflow areas for two days.
The state was notified within an hour, he added.
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation is investigating. Officials with the state agency could not be reached for comment.
The state could require the city to take corrective actions and impose fines for the violation. Wennberg said steps are already being taken to correct the issues that led to the overflow.
Ehlers, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, said while the city complied with the legal notifications, more needs to be done to protect and alert the public when incidents occur.
The city’s Department of Public Works’ Facebook page shows the posting about the spill went up around noon on the day of the incident — many hours after the problem was first detected.