This commentary is from Jeff Wennberg, former commissioner of public works for Rutland and former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

I was disappointed to read that the Vermont Natural Resources Council appealed the new operating license for the Rutland Wastewater Treatment Plant. The basis of the appeal – the fact that combined sewer overflows are not regulated by the permit – is wrong on all counts.

The Natural Resources Council demands that the City not only control and minimize combined sewer overflows, but eliminate them. Eliminating the combined sewer overflows would result in significantly more pollution in Otter Creek, the exact opposite of what the permit is intended to achieve.

The only way to eliminate the possibility of a combined sewer overflow is to separate all storm sewers from sanitary sewers. Currently, the sewers are combined and deliver 700 million gallons of stormwater annually to the treatment plant. Therefore, stormwater discharged into Otter Creek is cleaner than the creek itself. If the sewers were separated, all of that stormwater would end up in the creek with little or no treatment, which would dramatically increase pollution.

For example, in a recent year, the city estimated that all sewer overflows combined that year released an additional 76 pounds of phosphorus into Otter Creek. In the same year, the Rutland Wastewater Treatment Plant removed 1,276 pounds of phosphorus from stormwater. If the sewers had been separated, 76 pounds would have been stopped and 1,276 pounds would have been freed.

And it’s not like combined sewer overflows are ignored. The state regulates them through the CSO rule, which requires the city to submit a long-term control plan and then implement the plan over time.

Rutland has already spent more than $20 million to reduce combined sewer overflows and will need to spend several times that amount to implement the control plan. This makes sense because combined sewer overflows occur in the collection system, not the treatment plant. The sewage treatment plant permit concerns the sewage treatment plant, not the plumbing connected to it. The collection system is regulated by the CSO rule and enforced by imposing heavy fines and penalties if the city does not comply.

Notwithstanding the dubious legality of including CSO requirements in the sewage plant permit, it makes no practical sense. If the requirements of the sewage treatment plant permit are identical to those of the CSO rule, then they are redundant. If the requirements are different from the CSO rule, it could create a conflict that the city cannot satisfy without causing a violation – a classic bureaucratic catch-22; something the Vermont Natural Resources Council and others could tap into.

The goal of any clean water regulatory effort should be to improve water quality. Mandating massively costly actions that lead to increased pollution, or protracted litigation that delays needed investments in clean water, serves neither the environment nor the public interest.

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Tags: Jeff Wennberg, operating permit, Otter Creek, phosphorus, Rutland Wastewater Treatment Plant, Vermont Natural Resources Council

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