The City of Burlington, the state’s largest polluter of Vermont waterways, says it dumped another unpermitted 3 million gallons of waste into Lake Champlain last week.
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said Wednesday the spill has sparked a second investigation into the city of Burlington for its improper dumping.
The dumping by Burlington was within a mile of the primary intake for the Champlain Water District, which provides water to eight communities, including South Burlington, Shelburne, Colchester, Milton, Essex and Winooski.
Another investigation began after a pair of major spills into Lake Champlain in early June, according to Jessica Bulova, head of the state waste water division. Burlington dumped 700,000 partially untreated gallons on June 1-2 and another 1.1 million partially untreated gallons on June 4, she said.
It took the emergency on-call city employee about an hour to respond to Burlington’s main wastewater plant before any corrective action could begin to try to stop the problem late July 10 and into early July 11, Mayor Miro Weinberger told reporters.
Weinberger, Public Works Director Chapin Spencer and Assistant Director Megan Moir, who oversees the water resources department, promised transparency as they try to figure out what happened. They said during a news conference July 11 Burlington’s latest dump into the lake — like the earlier cases this year — was unacceptable.
Weinberger said a failure in a computerized control system during a thunderstorm caused the unplanned 3 million-gallon release of undisinfected discharge into the lake. He and Spencer said some treatment on the discharge had been completed.
Since Jan. 1, Burlington has introduced more than 12 million gallons of unpermitted sewage and water pollution into Lake Champlain. That is about half of the estimated 24 million gallons of improper liquids that have been flushed into the Lake Champlain Basin in just over six months, according to state numbers.
By comparison, Rutland has sent about 7 million gallons into the Lake Champlain Basin, mostly Otter Creek. Brandon is in third place at 1.6 million gallons and St. Albans is in fourth place with 1 million gallons into Lake Champlain.
The latest dumping is distressing for dozens of other communities in Vermont and New York that use Lake Chaplain as the primary source for drinking water, washing and recreation.
James Fay, general manager of the Champlain Water District, said it is distressing anytime a primary water source such as Lake Champlain has anything improperly introduced into it. Shelburne Water Commissioner Pete Gadue, who also sits on the water district board, echoed the comments. He said he expects the latest Burlington problems will be discussed when the regional water board meets this month.
Fay said one benefit for the regional water district is that Lake Champlain flows north, away from the water district’s intake just south of the discharge at the Burlington plant.
The dumping also forced warning signs at four Burlington beaches for 48 hours, city officials said.
Burlington officials said they are taking the pollution case seriously. They mentioned transparency a few times during the news conference, but a week later there were still some missing answers to questions, including the name of the emergency on-call person and what town he was responding from that it took 58 minutes.
“We don’t have the name of the staff person. We can certainly get it for you before the end of the day,” Spencer told newspaper and TV reporters at the 45-minute news conference on July 11.
It remained unclear how the Burlington employee was able to finish work that morning and leave without any kind of debriefing about a major spill. The employee’s name has still not been disclosed.
DPW spokesman Robert Goulding had said late Friday the city was attempting to protect the identity of the employee. When asked why the employee needed protection in this case, when the city routinely provides the names of police officers involved in shootings in the line of duty, Goulding offered no answer.
Assistant City Attorney Anthea Dexter-Cooper confirmed late Tuesday night that the city was considering possible disciplinary action against the employee and would not provide his or her name, and any payroll records for the worker.
Earlier Chapin said the city might take disciplinary action against an employee, if warranted.
“While the initial information compiled from my management team points to a failure of the plant’s logic control system, if through the investigation we determine there was also human error involved, I assure you that the appropriate personnel action will be taken,” he said in an email.
Spencer said the union contract normally requires the employee to respond in 30 minutes or less.
Spencer said in the email the contract with the AFSCME union states, “Unless other arrangements are specifically agreed to by the department head, an employee who is on call shall be expected to report to work within 30 minutes of being called…” Spencer added reasonable accommodations are made for poor weather conditions.
After several more unsuccessful attempts by a few media outlets to get information about the spill, a few reporters filed Vermont Public Records requests with the city. The Vermont law provides for prompt release of information. The Legislature further clarified the law this year to define “promptly” to mean “immediately, with little or no delay…”
Weinberger’s legal team responded to the public records request saying the city would need up to $650 to sort through records just so the public could read them.
The Burlington discharges could continue until the city can make some upgrades in the next half-decade.
The city has talked about $8 million to $10 million in capital upgrades over the next four or five years to replace treatment systems now in use, the mayor said. Weinberger said he wants the DPW to come up with a plan by Dec. 1 on trying to make corrections to the problem system. The thought is to put a ballot item before voters on Town Meeting Day in March, he said.
Weinberger said he thought there would be enough time for the city council to review and approve a major bond issue and for the mayor’s administration to put information out to voters so they could understand the proposed costs and improvements.
In the meantime, the city plans to hire an independent contractor to evaluate Burlington’s main plant, the mayor said.
The city posted caution signs on July 11 at beaches within one mile of the plant’s outfall, which includes Perkins Pier, Blanchard Beach, the Blodgett Access Area and the U.S. Coast Guard Boat Launch. The city urged caution for vulnerable populations, which included toddlers, infants and older people with compromised immune systems.
By July 12 the water samples came back with bacteria levels below EPA limits. State requirements mandated the warning signs remain up until July 13, but the beaches were open.