Out of sight, out of mind. That’s often the case for pollution issues. So it’s no surprise that most people do not realize that raw, untreated sewage is routinely – and illegally – dumped into the same waters we drink from and recreate in. Here in Vermont, according to state data, there have been 147 untreated sewage discharges, or “combined sewage overflows,” in just the past year.
What’s more, our sewage system is actually designed to dump raw sewage into our waters.
Am I peaking your curiosity? Are you starting to think you might give a crap about this issue? If so, read on to learn about the topic, and why CLF is weighing in on Vermont’s proposed rule to regulate these gross and illegal sewage releases. Spoiler alert: We think the rule needs improvements.
Double Duty Pipe Systems
The problem with untreated sewage leaking into our waterways comes down to “Combined Sewer Overflows,” also known as “CSOs.” CSOs are pipes designed to carry both raw sewage from homes and businesses to treatment facilities and stormwater that runs off of streets after big wet weather events. Under normal conditions, the pipes carry the water to a treatment plant, and, once treated, the water is released into nearby rivers and lakes. But during heavy rainfall events or snowmelt, these combined pipes are not big enough to handle the increased volume of fluids.
Rather than have the pipes back up into people’s homes or risk them bursting, these combined sewage systems are designed to overflow directly into nearby rivers and lakes. Yes, that means raw, untreated sewage (along with pretty nasty stormwater that has picked up cigarette butts, oil particles, and other toxins) is released right into the same bodies of water where we drink, fish, and swim.
You’re probably thinking – holy #%*$! And it is alarming – especially given that EPA issued a policy to eliminate these double-duty pipe systems back in 1994. Yet, 860 municipalities across the U.S. still rely on these combined sewage systems (mosty in the Northeast and Great Lakes region). The Vermont cities of Rutland and Vergennes alone released more than 1 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Lake Champlain tributaries during one week in February of this year. Think about a million jugs of milk, but full of raw human sewage.
And with more extreme precipitation inundating Vermont communities as a result of climate change, the incidences of raw sewage dumps are only going to increase.
CSOs Are Illegal Under the Clean Water Act
To be clear, these nasty CSOs are illegal. An EPA spokesperson recently said, “Towns are in violation (of the Clean Water Act) when there is a CSO discharge.” Yet, states have been slow to use their permitting and enforcement authority to bring cities and towns into compliance with the Clean Water Act in this regard. Why? Because it will cost money – whether it’s to upgrade infrastructure to handle higher volumes of water, or implement measures to reduce stormwater, like these “green stormwater infrastructure” methods.
But human health, and the health of our waters, must be the priority.
Vermont’s Draft CSO Rule
In Vermont, the Department of Environmental Conservation is finally taking action to remedy these legal lapses, and it recently issued a new draft Rule to regulate CSOs in the state. CLF applauds the state’s recognition that the existing approach to CSO control is badly in need of an overhaul. While the Draft contains many important on-paper enhancements to existing requirements, more can and should be done to ensure timely control of CSO discharges to Vermont waters (see our complete comment letter).
- Vermont Should Prohibit Cities and Towns from Letting their Sewage Problems Get Worse before They Get Better. In the face of these overflow problems, Vermont municipalities still want to connect new sewage hookups to the old, undersized pipes. The State must take a firm stance on disallowing these new hookups until combined sewer system pipelines are expanded to handle more volume.
- Vermont Should Require Monitoring of These Double Duty Pipes to Get a Sense of the Magnitude of the Problem. Due to a paltry CSO monitoring system, Vermont has a woefully inadequate understanding of what pollutants are pouring into our rivers and lakes with each dirty CSO discharge. The Clean Water Act requires strict monitoring of CSOs and it’s high time that Vermont issue rules that meet this federal standard. This is especially true for monitoring the release of nutrients of extreme concern, like phosphorus in Lake Champlain.
- Vermont Should Require Cities and Towns to Conduct Financial Planning for the Infrastructure Improvements Necessary to Eliminate These Unlawful Spills. CSOs have long persisted as well-known yet poorly accounted for and controlled contributions to water quality standard violations. Yet cities and towns often claim that pipeline improvements are unattainable due to high costs. If financial planning is required, this “we can’t afford it” excuse can no longer be tolerated.
- Vermont Should Require Cities and Towns to Provide Early Public Notice of Sewage Discharges. If a raw sewage overflow occurred right now, it might be tomorrow or the next day before state officials post notice about the dangers of swimming or fishing in the impacted lake, river, or stream (notice is posted online and at the site of the overflow). Under existing law, that delay is considered fine. CLF believes earlier notice is imperative and should be incorporated into this Rule. A bill requiring earlier public notification of just several hours is being considered by the Vermont legislature in a bill this session.
Though adoption of a Rule like the proposed Draft cannot insulate dischargers from liability for ongoing Clean Water Act violations, it can still – if substantially strengthened as recommended above – help eventually deliver on the law’s promise of water that is consistently safe for swimming, drinking, and fishing. Keep following to learn more about CLF’s role in improving water quality in Vermont.