Heavy rains, snowmelt trigger untreated sewage release

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MANCHESTER — The town's wastewater system released untreated sewage during the flooding in late January as the system was overwhelmed by unusually heavy rain and snowmelt.

The sewage release was triggered by the "overflow of a main sewer trunk line on Depot Street," according to a report Manchester filed with the Agency of Natural Resources' Department of Environmental Conservation. The body of water impacted by the release was the Battenkill River, the report said.

Manchester's wastewater system will release untreated sewage if it gets overwhelmed, preventing underground pipes from bursting and sewage backing up into homes and businesses, said Town Manager John O'Keefe.

The town's sewage treatment facility processes 300,000 gallons of sewage on an average day, but it treated some 1.3 million gallons on Jan. 24, most of it stormwater that infiltrated the wastewater system, O'Keefe said. What the system couldn't handle had been released untreated.

Without the release mechanism, "the system would implode," said O'Keefe, who has been Manchester town manager for 12 years. "The town has grown over the years, but we've never had anything close to that.  I feel pretty safe saying this 1.3 million [gallons] is probably a record for us."

The sewage release, which ran for nine hours starting 10 a.m. Jan. 24, was made up of wastewater from homes and businesses that had been "incredibly diluted" by stormwater, O'Keefe said. The pipes carrying the wastewater discharge into the Battenkill.

Manchester received 3.94 inches of rain between the evenings of Jan. 23-24, according to the National Weather Service office in Albany.

NWS meteorologist Joe Villani described the amount of rainfall as unusual in the cold season and "significant," because anything more than 2 inches is a flood concern. Snowmelt, which the weather service doesn't track, also contributed to the flooding Jan. 24, Villani said.

The only other time in the past 10 years Manchester's wastewater system released untreated sewage was in March 2018, when a sewer main near a pump station got blocked by tree roots.

Between 100 and 1,000 gallons of untreated sewage had been released at that time, according to the town report, which local governments are required to submit to the state whenever there are sewer overflows, releases or unpermitted discharges.

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Manchester's Water and Sewer Department couldn't determine the volume of the untreated sewage released Jan. 24, but O'Keefe said it was a "small" amount similar to the incident last year.

State environment officials commended the Water and Sewer Department's response to the severe weather, which included flooding from ice jams.

"They responded very effectively and worked very hard at controlling the effects of that, making sure that the pumps were still operating at max capacity," said Peter LaFlamme, director of the watershed management division at the Department of Environmental Conservation. "Overall the response looked outstanding."

Manchester has spent at least $1 million on upgrading its sewer system in the past five years, O'Keefe said. The system, which he described to be "in very good shape," will receive another $300,000 worth of work between this year and the next.

"While no system will ever be perfect, we continue to make improvements for the benefit of our users and the environment," O'Keefe said on Facebook under a post in which environmentalist James Ehlers called the attention of community members, including legislators, to the sewage release in Manchester.

Ehlers acknowledged in an interview that local wastewater treatment plants and their operators are doing the best they can with the systems in place. The problem, he said, lies with local and state officials who are after development and revenue at the expense of the environment.

"The issue is the bureaucrats behind the scenes stamping the pieces of paper that allow developers to continue to add more demand to the systems," said Ehlers, executive director of the nonprofit group Lake Champlain International and who was a candidate in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial race.

"I'm suggesting that perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities, that we shouldn't allow development until we know how we're going to handle floods," he said. "The liability gets passed on to Vermonters in the future with polluted water."

Since there are hundreds of communities in the state, the effects of untreated sewage release in various places add up over time, Ehlers said. On Jan. 24 alone, he pointed out that millions of gallons had been released in various town and cities around the state.

LaFlamme, of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said the design of sewage treatment facilities factor in population growth and increased local activity. Facilities, he said, also are regularly evaluated to see if they need to be redesigned or upgraded when flows increase.

Tiffany Tan can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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