By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Rutland’s sewage treatment facility often releases untreated discharges into the Otter Creek and its tributaries, which then empty into Lake Champlain. In a new appeal of a recently approved permit, members of an environmental organization argue officials haven’t adequately planned to eliminate the discharges.
In the recent appeal to the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court, the Vermont Natural Resources Council claims that a permit for the facility, issued by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, violates the federal Clean Water Act and Vermont law.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, issued on May 18, fails to outline a plan “to take control and work towards elimination of combined sewer overflows (CSOs)” from the facility, according to the appeal.
Katelyn Ellermann, associate general counsel with the Agency of Natural Resources, emailed a statement but declined to discuss details of the ongoing litigation. The agency is “still awaiting what is called the Statement of Questions—the issues VNRC is asking the Court to decide,” she wrote.
Stormwater and wastewater from Rutland City, along with areas of Rutland town, Mendon, Killington and Clarendon, are treated together in a combined system. When it rains heavily, the system can become overwhelmed, sending some untreated wastewater into nearby bodies of water to prevent it from otherwise backing up into streets and homes.
When untreated wastewater enters the watershed, it can carry bacteria, pathogens and pollutants such as phosphorus, which can prompt blooms of toxic blue-green algae in Lake Champlain and elsewhere.
“I was really surprised to see that the permit doesn’t include any of the requirements, the actual steps that Rutland needs to take to minimize the CSOs,” said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director with the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
The Agency of Natural Resources has a separate enforcement order related to combined sewer overflows in Rutland, Groveman said, but members of the organization say the permit should specifically outline a long-term plan.
“VNRC recognizes that it will take time and financial resources to completely eliminate CSO discharges,” Brian Shupe, executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council, said in a statement. “However, we will never achieve this goal through private agreements between ANR and the City of Rutland that have no end point, and are shielded from public scrutiny and accountability.”
If the combined sewer overflow provisions had been included in the permit, they would be reviewed every five years, and citizens could comment and better hold officials accountable for inaction, the organization argues.
Several big-picture solutions could prevent overflows, Groveman said. One would involve separating the sewer system from the stormwater system; another would entail expanding the capacity of the combined system. Such solutions are expensive, however, often costing millions of dollars.
Many water quality advocates, along with the state auditor’s office, have historically argued that investments in wastewater treatment facilities are less cost effective than other clean water projects. The majority of Lake Champlain’s phosphorus pollution problem comes from non-point sources, such as agriculture, and solutions in that sector tend to be cheaper.
As of 2015, when Vermont published a plan to reduce phosphorus in Lake Champlain, wastewater treatment facilities made up 3% of the lake’s phosphorus pollution from Vermont.
“The remaining CSOs in Vermont are the more challenging outfalls to address; they require digging up buried infrastructure and planning new stormwater management approaches in highly developed urban areas,” Ellermann, with the Agency of Natural Resources, wrote in an email. “The most challenging outfalls are also the most expensive to address.”
The state has recently received an influx of federal funding, including $30 million appropriated by state lawmakers to address combined sewer overflows, according to Ellermann.
In Groveman’s view, that makes this an opportune time to address wastewater issues. “I think farmers, sometimes, feel that they’re the only focus,” Groveman said. Stormwater and wastewater “need to be dealt with. They’re all important issues.”
Climate change is likely to exacerbate the impacts of overflows. Increasing precipitation could pump more water into the system, increasing the likelihood of overflows. In Lake Champlain and other bodies of water, hotter and drier weather may spur more algae blooms.
Because Rutland has some of the oldest infrastructure in the state, the facility is responsible for a relatively large number of combined sewer overflows, Groveman said, but he hopes the appeal will push the state to address overflows at all facilities, not just in Rutland.