Wastewater Discharge, Beach Closures Highlight Water Pollution Concerns in Vermont

The town of Shelburne, Vermont, announced an accidental discharge of partially-treated wastewater into Lake Champlain.

The team at the town's wastewater treatment plant worked Thursday to diagnose an overnight sensor malfunction that occurred after 8 p.m. Tuesday. From Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, that malfunction resulted in the discharge of 110,000 gallons of wastewater that had not yet been chlorinated, the town said.

"We take it very seriously and look to rectify any mistake as quickly as possible," said Joe Colangelo, the town manager of Shelburne.

Colangelo explained before the accidental discharge, the wastewater had all the solids removed, but still needed to have chlorine added as the final sanitation step. He said Shelburne moved quickly to inform environmental officials of the incident, which is required under state law.

Colangelo said the community values its place as a lakeside town and wants to do the best job it can to promote lake stewardship. He said despite the discharge problems this week, the vast majority of the water the town treats enters Lake Champlain at an extremely clean and safe level, something the community is proud of.

The discharge in Shelburne was just the latest incident this summer underscoring concerns related to lake pollution, which have far-reaching impacts.

In recent weeks, several beaches in Burlington had to close temporarily due to E. coli contamination, and to blooms of the sometimes-toxic bacteria known as blue-green algae.

"These are no longer just fringe environmental issues, these are very serious public health issues," said James Ehlers, a clean water advocate with the group Lake Champlain International.

"The lake is a big economic driver," added Brian Voigt of the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont, which researches how humans interact with the environment.

In a new study, Voigt found that for every meter of clear water which northwestern Vermont loses, it could also lose nearly $17-million in economic activity. The loss would come largely from spending by travelers who could be turned off by murkiness in the lake and choose to visit other places for their recreation, dining, lodging, and shopping.

Such a loss would also result in impacts to jobs and property values along the lake, Voigt said.

"I think it moves this conversation about lake cleanup beyond just viewing the lake as an environmental problem," Voigt told necn. "We should think of the lake as not only an environmental asset but also an economic asset and, really, an economic generator."

Ehlers said the Shelburne incident could serve as a call to municipal water treatment plants everywhere to work on installing alarms or backup systems which could help catch accidental discharges earlier.

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