Energy & Environment

Lake Memphremagog defenders seek better dialogue between Canada, state over spills

Lake Memphremagog
View of Lake Memphremagog from a hill near Mansonville, Eastern Townships, Quebec. Newport is at the end of the lake toward the right. Photo by Kevstan/Wikimedia Commons

A recent sewage spill in Lake Memphremagog has raised concerns about limited communication between Vermont and Canadian officials regarding waste leaks into the international water on Vermont’s northern border.

Last month a sewage leak dumped about 7,000 gallons of effluent into the lake. The incident has spurred a change in how residents in Canada and the United States will be notified about spills in future.

More than 175,000 Canadians get their drinking water from the Memphremagog, which straddles the boundary between Orleans County and Quebec. Until recently, the state did not directly notify northern neighbors of a spill, regardless of size.

Instead, Canadians had to sign up for an automated Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation email and text system. That hasn’t sat well with lake protectionists on either side of the border.

“We should be advised,” said Robert Benoit, president of Memphremagog Conservation Inc., a Canadian nonprofit founded in the 1960s. 

“I think we should be more careful than not enough,” Benoit said.

The Newport incident has resulted in new dialogue: Vermont officials told Quebec counterparts that they will notify the province of any future event, said Daniel Messier, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Fight Against Climate Change.

DEC wastewater program manager Amy Polacyzk said state and Quebec officials are working on a draft protocol, and she said the department plans to update its automated system so Vermont can send revised reports as details on spills become clearer.

Newport public works staff discovered a sewage leak Sept. 22 on Main Street after receiving an odor complaint. That day, city employees reported the spill to the state, and workers finished cleanup two days later. 

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In their initial report to the state, city staff members estimated the waste had been leaking for a week because of the severity of the odors. They told the state the spill could total between 100,000 and 500,000 gallons, a figure quickly reported by local newspapers

The initial numbers seemed high to Peggy Stevens of West Charleston, a member of Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity — or DUMP — a regional environmental group known that opposed an expansion of Casella Waste Systems’ landfill in Coventry.

Stevens shared the information with Benoit who informed officials in Canadian municipalities around the lake. To Benoit’s surprise, the municipal officials knew nothing about the leak.

The spill ended up being 7,000 gallons. State officials said a blockage in a gravity line caused sewage to pump out into the lake through an abandoned pipe and culvert, which have since been sealed.

While the leak was smaller than feared, that’s beside the point for Stevens.

“The point is that a spill of any size or substance needs to be communicated immediately and directly on either side of the border,” she said.

Stevens and fellow DUMP member Henry Coe wrote to Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore on Sept. 29, asking what notification protocols exist to address spills with possible international impacts.

Moore, according to the emails, pointed to the email list.

Vermont Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore speaks before Gov. Phil Scott, left, signed Act 76, a water quality bill, in August 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“To facilitate timely notification of any discharges that may affect boundary waters, we encourage all interested parties — on either side of the border — to subscribe to receive notification emails,” Moore wrote. “This is one option for immediate communication of spills that would allow those in the affected area to be aware of these events as soon as they are known.”

Stevens said she appreciates the efforts by state officials. But she believes they need a better system.

“You’re relying on somebody else to read their email,” she said. “In the event of a spill of any amount of a contaminating substance, the most direct way to communicate would be by telephone.” 

She added: “It shouldn’t be up to the offended party to go online (and see) there’s a spill.”

Benoit said he and Canadian officials have since signed up for the mailing list, but he’d also prefer a more direct line of communication. He said Newport Mayor Paul Monette should have called someone, at least. 

Monette said the city had done its job — to report the incident to the state — and he doesn’t believe more action by the city is necessary.

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“I think if the state has the automated system … that should suffice,” he said. “I don’t want the city, nor do they have the time, to take the extra effort to contact every municipality across the border.”

State legislators in the Newport area suggested some change is needed.

“There probably should be perhaps a better, quicker method than what currently exists,” said Rep. Woody Page, R-Newport. 

He said the city and state followed the proper procedures, but if they’re not enough, Canadian and Vermont authorities should talk about better coordination.

The lake is 31 miles long, stretching from Newport to Magog, Quebec. Seventy-three percent of the lake’s surface is in Quebec.

Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Coventry, agrees that Canadians should be notified directly. He said he isn’t sure anyone considered the international line of communication over spills before the September incident.

Michael Marcotte
Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Newport, chair of the House Commerce & Economic Development Committee in March 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I can see when there could be raw sewage going into the lake, where they would want to know because they are getting their drinking water from the lake,” he said.  “And although (a contaminant) takes quite a bit of time for it to migrate to Canada, it still could be an issue for them and they should know about it so they’re prepared for it.”

Benoit, the Canadian conservationist, said Quebec and Vermont officials had planned to meet in November for an annual summit. If the meeting happens this year — Covid-19 could complicate plans — Benoit said one topic will be improving notifications about the lake. 

Polaczyk, the DEC wastewater manager, said the recent reforms should improve communication in case of future spills. 

“It really puts us in a stronger position to work with our Canadian counterparts and be transparent,” she said.

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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