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Millions more funding needed for Burlington’s wastewater system - Energy And Water Development Corp

Millions more funding needed for Burlington’s wastewater system

The New North End wastewater treatment plant. File photo by Katya Schwenk/VTDigger

Almost four years after Burlington voters approved a $30 million bond for clean water and stormwater upgrades, the city’s public works department now plans to seek additional funding for system improvements. 

The initial bond proposal followed a series of system malfunctions in 2018, including a computer glitch that let out three million gallons of untreated water.

Wastewater system upgrades often come with a steep price tag. The last time Burlington significantly replaced existing infrastructure was in 1990 with a $52 million bond. In today’s dollars, that would amount to roughly $100 million, according to Megan Moir, division director for water resources at the city’s Department of Public Works.

Several construction projects have already been completed using the $30 million investment. Some updates included improvements to the computerized control system at the Main Plant, the highest risk sewer pump stations and the disinfection systems at all three of the city’s wastewater treatment plants. 

The bond approved in 2018 designated $20 million for clean water projects and $10 million for stormwater upgrades. With a little more than half of the clean water funds available — approximately $12 million of $20 million — Moir said the department realized that they had “a much larger project on our hands” and that the 2018 bond “simply will not cover the needed work.” 

While some stormwater funding remains available, Moir said, it’s not enough to cover the overall need. Moir said that with additional funding, she is looking at modernizing and renewing existing systems and a long list of capacity expansions and additional upgrades.

Moir said that the department is conducting a comprehensive wastewater engineering report to determine the amount of funding needed and will speak with the city council and the public at the end of the year. She hopes that construction might start in 2024. 

“We’re going to use all means possible to get the lowest borrowing costs for our ratepayers and for our system. I’m 500% committed to that,” Moir said, adding, “I believe that everybody deserves access to affordable, clean, safe drinking water, wastewater, all those services.”

The city’s plan could face criticism. James Ehlers, public policy director at Lake Champlain International and children’s environmental health director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, believes the wastewater expansion upgrades could entice developers and unfairly impact ratepayers.

According to Ehlers, by expanding wastewater systems, Burlington is prioritizing private profit over public and environmental health — attempting to fix the burden of the wastewater system without acknowledging the burden that larger companies and new developments place on the system.

“Never, in the history of humanity, has more development solved an ecological problem,” Ehlers continued. 

Ehlers said that larger contributors should be obligated to install their own treatment systems, such as the one in operation at the GlobalFoundries plant in Essex Junction.

Moir said that there needs to be more discussion before anything is scheduled to go on the ballot.

Additional funding needs

Some of the upgrades that a bond might fund are odor control at the Main Plant and consolidating the East plant into a large pump station.

Moir is also proposing to include a tertiary treatment program — which would remove phosphorus from wastewater — at the Main Plant that could cost approximately $12 million. The treatment program would potentially reduce the number of beach closures due to cyanobacteria growth

Another contributor to beach closures is combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which occur when the sewage treatment system is overwhelmed, often due to heavy rain, and releases untreated sewage into Lake Champlain.

Moir said that the Pine Street CSO, which is Burlington’s most active CSO, will hopefully have fewer overflows with the implementation of a storage tank. However, if the additional funding isn’t approved, Moir said that she might have to make the “hard decision” to use the money for upgrades to a wastewater treatment plant instead of addressing CSOs.

Additional funding would also be allocated to updating nine sewer pump stations which are “beyond their useful life” as well as “numerous stormwater outfalls that are in eroded condition,” according to Moir.

In addition, Moir is planning on applying for an American Rescue Plan Act grant that would help fund the continuation of the department’s industrial pollution prevention program, a regulatory program for industrial customers who produce organic matter, heavy metals and PFAS.

Ehlers believes that Burlington has a PFAS problem, a class of toxic chemicals that contaminated water wells in the Bennington area and have been found in groundwater near the Coventry landfill.

According to Moir, although some amount of PFAS has been detected in wastewater sludge, PFAS “hasn’t been identified as much of a situation” for Burlington as it has with surrounding communities. 

For Ehlers, this isn’t enough. 

“When there’s a fire, the first thing you do is stop pouring gas on it. So there should be a moratorium on development in the sectors where the system is not capable of handling the input that it currently has,” he said.

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