Test Results Give Vt. Beaches All-Clear After Large Wastewater Discharges

Newly-released test results of water off beaches in the city of Burlington, Vermont, showed the destinations were safe to use Wednesday evening, following a series of discharges that threatened to foul Lake Champlain.

The city's main treatment plant that handles both storm water and wastewater, including from bathrooms, was overwhelmed by downpours Saturday and Monday. The rain came at a bad time, plant managers said—during a period of heavy flow from industrial customers.

The Burlington Public Works Department said over the course of the two events, the strained system dumped roughly 1.8 million gallons of only partially-disinfected waste and storm water a half-mile out into the scenic lake.

The discharge included higher-than-allowable levels of E. coli bacteria, the city said.

"One gallon is too many," Burlington Public Works Director Chapin Spencer told necn affiliate NBC 5 News on Tuesday, describing discharges of water that hasn’t been fully treated. "And our team is focused, day in and day out — days, nights, weekends — on protecting Lake Champlain."

The city said because of the distance out into the lake where the discharge happened, known risks to human health were minimal.

Still, Burlington officials alerted the public to the potential health threat using signs on beaches, until new test results came out Wednesday afternoon.

That sampling showed normal bacteria levels close to zero, according to the Burlington Public Works Department, which allowed for closed beaches to reopen at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

"There is a visceral reaction people have -- and rightly so -- to sewage," Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore told NBC 5 News Monday after an announcement of new federal funding for Lake Champlain in Burlington. "There are public health concerns when you have wastewater that is not fully treated. This time of year, people like to be out on the water and recreating, so those concerns are more significant."

Lori Fisher advocates for cleaner and healthier water with the nonprofit Lake Champlain Committee.

"It's an international treasure," Fisher said Wednesday of the lake.

Fisher is discouraged to hear of sewer discharges whenever they happen up and down the shoreline, blaming, in part, aging water-handling infrastructure that really struggles with heavier rainfall.

"We have to make those investments," Fisher said of upgrades to water handling plants both in the Lake Champlain basin and nationwide. "Clean water does not come about for free."

The city said its biological treatment system, which was knocked out of whack by that heavy rain, is now improving. Spencer added that his department is working with large users of the wastewater plant to try to find ways to reduce strain on the system.

A portion of more than $8 million in new federal funding for the lake announced this week by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, will help some cities and towns come up with ways to prevent rainwater from overwhelming their treatment plants.

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