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Sylvia Knight: Public alerts and water quality

This commentary is written by Sylvia Knight, who has lived in Chittenden County for the latter half of her life and is an activist and researcher on pesticide and water quality issues. She views her life and work through the lens of Earth Community, and is an active member of a faith community, of the VT PFAS/Military Poisons Coalition, and is a long-time ally of Migrant Justice. 

This was in my email recently. It’s time to share this “juicy” stuff with others! Anyone can receive these notices to see how frequently waters we depend upon are contaminated by a currently legal process. 

For those who are unfamiliar with this aspect of the work of the Department of Environmental Conservation, this is an example of how the state uses dilution as the solution for pollution. DEC personnel deny such a policy exists when asked about it, but you can examine the evidence for yourself. 

Wastewater treatment facilities (WWTFs) in Rutland, Burlington, Montpelier and other municipalities have permits for “combined sewage overflows,” or CSOs, which allow untreated or partially treated sewage mixed with stormwater to enter and mix with streams during heavy rain events. 

Contaminants leaving WWTFs include PFAS whose sources include households, businesses and industry. PFAS were detected in materials entering WWTFs (influent), in materials leaving the facility (effluent), and in the sludge or bio-solids remaining (occasionally used as fertilizer on farms). Concentrations of PFAS not regulated in Vermont exceeded concentrations of the 5 PFAS that are currently regulated. 

According to Vermont water quality rules (based on the federal Clean Water Act), “mixing zones” and “waste management zones” are permitted portions of a stream where WWTFs empty into rivers, where water quality standards are not maintained. Waste is expected to dilute, disperse and move away, in order to restore water quality standards. 

But where is “away”? Where do the pollutants go? These man-made chemicals do not disappear or break down, ever. They are toxic to life wherever they go. “Mixing zones” are questionable in the world of “forever” toxins and now discouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

According to that report, I added up the discharges from one rainy day, 8/23: discharges from 4 discrete points in their system released a total of 245,075 gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into East Creek and Otter Creek. On 8/11, a total of 30,130 gallons were discharged from Rutland’s system into East Creek and Otter Creek. On 8/8, a total of 164,140 gallons were discharged into East Creek and Otter Creek. In one month nearly a half million gallons of contaminants entered Lake Champlain watershed, legally. 

Burlington’s 5-structure WWTF system also has CSO overflows. Fish at the mouth of the Winooski River are contaminated with PFAS, thanks in part to two WWTFs on the 

Winooski River and to upstream discharges. Some fish in lower Otter Creek are contaminated with PFAS — forever, bio-accumulative toxins — at higher than EPA-advised levels. 

Toxic PFAS pervading our economy move through WWTFs, contaminating water, soil and organisms wherever they go. These “forever” toxins never break down, remaining in earth and water for the foreseeable future. They build up in living tissue, cause serious health effects and target the immune system at very small amounts, putting us at higher risk of illness as we deal with endemic, mutating viruses. The EPA has not found a way to effectively regulate PFAS. Vermont has set standards for only 5 of about 9,000 PFAS chemicals. 

It’s time to engage the precautionary principle. It’s time to ban PFAS chemicals from our economy. It’s time to engage a creative systems approach to challenge current policies and established systems to manage our waste. 

DEC officials need to be honest with us about the problems we all face. Only then can we protect the water, ourselves, and the community of life from “forever” toxic contamination. 

Waters and their contaminants mix with international waters, used by thousands of people for drinking and bathing, and eventually reach the oceans, already at risk. PFAS are transported in the atmosphere that moves around the Earth. 

Water is not a commodity to be used for disposing of waste and toxins, especially now in the age of forever, bio-accumulative toxins. Water belongs to the Earth, for all life, for all time. 

If you read this with concern, please contact [email protected] if you want to work with us to protect water quality from PFAS contamination.

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