Are Vermont wastewater treatment plants to blame for algae blooms?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Algae blooms have forced Burlington beaches to close multiple times this summer.

Now, the Conservation Law Foundation is appealing nine sewage treatment plant permits that have been approved by the state. The environmental group says these wastewater treatment facilities dumping phosphorus into Lake Champlain are partially responsible for the blooms.

Our Neliana Ferraro has been investigating Vermont's wastewater issues for weeks and digs deeper into the lawsuits.

"It just doesn't make sense," said Elena Mihaly of the Conservation Law Foundation in response to news that nine facilities are now able to discharge more phosphorus, not less, into Vermont's waters.

Right now, the Department of Environmental Conservation is issuing new permits to 58 wastewater treatment facilities in Vermont. Those permits determine how much phosphorus each facility can discharge into waterways. The first batch of permits has been issued. That prompted the CLF to sue.

According to court documents, the new permits do lower the pounds of phosphorus per year. For example, South Burlington was allowed to discharge around 1,935 pounds per year. The new permit decreased the limit to 760.

The CLF says the problem comes when you look at the amount the facilities are actually discharging. In 2017, South Burlington discharged more than 100 pounds of phosphorus.

"In some cases, these permits are allowing a doubling or a tripling, or in some cases even more than a tripling of current discharges. And that's what matters to the lake is what's actually coming out of these pipes," Mihaly said.

But just because they can release more doesn't mean they will. When WCAX News spoke with South Burlington Water Quality Superintendent Bob Fischer, he said their planned upgrades will reduce phosphorus levels. So they probably will not even reach the permit's limit.

"We're really concerned the arguments CLF is making is putting pressure in an unhelpful way on our wastewater treatment facilities and will actually discourage future optimization efforts," said Julie Moore, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Moore says the EPA is on board with these permits. Phosphorus levels have dramatically decreased. She says in the early 1980s, wastewater treatment facilities were responsible for more than 50 percent of the phosphorus pollution going into Lake Champlain each year. Now, she says they emit between 3 percent and 5 percent.

"So we've made really significant investments on our wastewater infrastructure and enjoyed a return on those investments," Moore said.

The CLF and the state are now waiting for a ruling from an environmental judge, who has suggested they try to settle out of court.