By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
RUTLAND — Environmental groups say the Agency of Natural Resources’ pending permits for sewage treatment plants in Rutland County don’t go far enough to address pollutant-laden overflows into local waterways.
Permits are currently pending for treatment plants in Rutland, Pittsford, Wallingford and Brandon. The public comment period for the permits ended Sept. 10.
Stormwater and wastewater from Rutland City, along with areas of the town of Rutland, Mendon, Killington and Clarendon, are treated together in a combined Rutland sewer system. When it rains heavily, relief valves open to prevent water from backing up into streets and homes — instead it sends untreated waste into Otter Creek.
“Combined sewer systems are not a reflection of the ability of the wastewater treatment facility to treat sanitary wastewater, but more of a reflection of the engineering approach used for stormwater management when the collection was built,” Amy Polacyzk, wastewater program manager for the Agency of Natural Resources, said at a public meeting on the permits.
Discharges are common in Rutland. In August, Rutland’s sewer plant accounted for eight of the 11 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) caused by wet weather around the state. In total, nearly 180,000 gallons of untreated waste emptied into Otter Creek in August alone.
Environmentalists are concerned about phosphorus — a nutrient that’s building up in Lake Champlain and causing blue-green algae blooms, some of which are toxic. They’re also concerned that overflows may contain pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, E. coli and PFAS (a chemical group that’s prompting increased concern globally) — all of which can be harmful to nature and human health.
Climate change is likely to exacerbate the impacts of these overflows at both ends of the process: Increasing precipitation could pump more water into the system, causing more overflows. In the lake, increased hot and dry periods may spur more algae blooms. Vermont has had both drought and extreme precipitation in the last year.
Overflows from combined sewer systems account for only 3% of Lake Champlain’s phosphorus load, though, and upgrades to the plants cost millions of dollars. Rutland City has been working on several projects to upgrade the facility, and officials have said they may need $40 million more to fully upgrade the aging system.
With an influx of federal money from both the American Rescue Plan Act and likely from the forthcoming infrastructure bill, environmentalists at last week’s meeting said now could be the best time to invest in these facilities.
At a public hearing on Sept. 2, requested by Danby-based environmental organization Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE), members of several environmental groups urged the Agency of Natural Resources to make the permits more restrictive.
John Brabant, regulatory affairs director for VCE, said the organization believes state officials know that the releases at the Rutland plant violate Vermont’s clean water standards, but because solutions are out of immediate reach, they allow the violations to take place.
The Agency of Natural Resources “needs to acknowledge the problems with this and other similarly situated plants’ designs and operations and, as previously stated, include real permit requirements that will result in plant and plant infrastructure improvements over a reasonable timeframe (but not more than five years) to see the plant through to consistent compliance,” Brabant’s written public comment stated.
The number of combined collection systems in the state has decreased from 29 to 13, Polacyzk said. In 2020, the total number of combined sewer outfalls, or locations where overflows empty into a waterway, decreased from 178 to 49, she said.
Polacyzk said Thursday, Sept. 2, that every remaining system with combined sewer overflows must have a long-term control plan, which must include schedules and funding plans and “establish minimum technology-based requirements and detail how the municipality will bring their CSOs into compliance with the Vermont water quality standards.”
The state has spent more money addressing phosphorus from wastewater than any other sector — $61.2 million over the last five years — according to figures from the state’s Clean Water Performance Report, released earlier this year.
“It costs about $2 million to eliminate a single outfall point as a general estimate,” Polacyzk said at Thursday’s meeting. “Engineering varies widely with these. And as you might imagine, in the reduction of the first 100 and less CSO outfalls, those were the easy ones, and now the ones that are left are more complex engineering problems to deal with.”
Under Lake Champlain’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a document established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that outlines pollution standards for the lake and its tributaries, only some of the state’s wastewater treatment plants require phosphorus reductions.
Those plants contribute more than 10% of the phosphorus load to the surrounding watershed. Rutland, which discharges to the Otter Creek, a river surrounded by agricultural land, is not required to reduce its phosphorus load, according to a fact sheet issued by the Agency of Natural Resources with Rutland’s pending permit.
Four-tenths of Lake Champlain’s phosphorus comes from agriculture, and state officials and environmental groups have agreed that changing farming practices should be the state’s top priority, as those changes will be less expensive and more effective.
Zack Porter, the Lake Champlain lakekeeper with the Conservation Law Foundation, said while the TMDL emphasized reducing pollutants from non-point sources, such as agriculture, he requested more attention on phosphorus reductions at sewer plants.
Several years into Lake Champlain’s 20-year restoration plan, he said he’s worried Vermont won’t hit the goals. Non-point source reductions require voluntary participation, he said.
“It only seems logical to me to ask a little bit more of our wastewater treatment facilities that we have quite a bit of control over, compared to those nonpoint source locations,” he said.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said she’s disappointed that local waterways continue to be at risk because of the overflows. She’s tallied the number of overflows into Otter Creek since 2015, and said Rutland has had 482; Bran don, 12; Pittsford, three; and Wallingford, two. Rutland is the only combined system of the four.
She estimated that, of the more than 187 million gallons of sewage overflows that have gone into Otter Creek, those four permits account for more than 107 million.
“This is not an inconsequential amount of contaminants entering our waters,” she told state officials last week.
“These permits look like business as usual,” she said, “and I don’t think we have time for that anymore. We really do need to do a lot better.”