Over a hundred people — native Vermonters, second-home owners, Canadians participating virtually, brand-new Newport residents and even a dog — showed up Tuesday evening to listen to officials from the state talk about the health of the international Lake Memphremagog at Newport’s Gateway Center. Around two dozen participants expressed concerns and asked questions during the two-and-a-half-hour “Memphremagog Community Forum,” focusing especially on the role of the Coventry landfill (NEWSVT), located just south of the lake.
Earlier that day, news broke in the Canadian press and was confirmed at the meeting by Pete LaFlamme, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s watershed management division, to the welcome surprise of many in attendance: the moratorium on leachate disposal into the lake, set to expire in 2023, will be extended until at least 2026.
The leachate, so-called “garbage juice,” is currently being trucked to Montpelier, where it is treated to the extent possible and then dumped into local rivers, making its way eventually into Lake Champlain — another worry for the state. Leachate is known to contain a range of emerging contaminants known as PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances).
LaFlamme also announced that a pre-treatment permit for the NEWSVT (New England Waste Services - Vermont, who runs the landfill for Casella Waste Systems) landfill, Vermont’s only currently operating disposal facility, is still in draft form and will be put out for public review in mid-September. The permit would direct Casella to pilot emerging PFAS-removal technologies on the leachate for state monitoring and review.
Only if the technologies work to the state’s satisfaction will the leachate be allowed to resume release into Lake Memphremagog.
“Nationally, we are on the leading edge of this,” said LaFlamme. “There is a lot of interest in this, of course, because these concerns are not unique here. There is global concern around the PFAS.” PFAS are found in items such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant coatings and fast food containers, and wrappers.
Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) Secretary Julie Moore emphasized the need for the PFAS-removal research as well as overall waste reduction, since leachate is simply the result of trash production.
“Anything we do to reduce the volume of material being sent to the landfill is in service of reducing leachate,” she said. “But it’s not something that can be eliminated as long as we’re throwing things away.”
However, meeting participants made clear with comments and signs that they wanted more to be done — a forever ban on leachate disposal into the lake, PFAS treatment or not, accelerated research and lower contaminant standards.
In addition, participants called for no further landfill expansion after 2028. In 2019, the landfill was allowed to expand for another ten years, the Caledonian previously reported.
“How about we do this somewhere else?” former Newport Mayor Charlie Pronto said, garnering applause from the crowd. “We don’t need any more of this crap. In my lifetime I hope that I can be celebrating the last time that you give a permit to the dump. Ten years from now I hope you say no, and I hope you’re doing your job now to find another place to put this because we’re done with it, we’re sick of it.”
Despite continued criticism from meeting participants, state officials were thankful for the dialogue.
“One of the biggest challenges at times is engaging the public in robust dialogue about the work needed to protect and steward our natural resources,” Moore told the audience is welcome. “The sheer number of people in the room tonight is heartening.”
“I understand that the conversation may be hard or challenging at times, but we welcome that,” she said. “I think the alternative is far worse: were there no one paying attention, no one who was concerned about the long-term water quality of a place as beautiful as Lake Memphremagog.”
Other state officials gave updates on components of their current work at and around the lake, including phosphorus reduction efforts, the initial stages of an updated tactical basin plan for the watershed, ongoing PFAS sampling and the continued research on malignant melanoma found in a consistent 30 percent of brown bullhead fish since around 2012.
Pete Emerson, a fisheries biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department, said they still have not found anything, including contaminants, to be a “smoking gun” in the case of the brown bullhead. The department is awaiting funding to map the genome of the fish with cancer researchers from the UVM medical center as well as work with the USGS.
“Believe me, there are worse places, from a contaminant perspective, that have bullhead than Lake Memphremagog,” said Emerson. “So we’re not saying this is a contaminant-related issue specifically; we don’t necessarily believe that at all and we’re looking at a lot of things, including viruses that cause cancer.”
“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to actually solve this problem,” he said. “We think we can, we think it’s going to take some time and we have a lot of work to do.”
Rick Levey, an environmental scientist with DEC, detailed the results of the first of three rounds of sampling for PFAS in the lake. So far, only very low levels of PFAS have been found in a few of the state’s samples (less than 3 parts per trillion).
Oliver Pierson, lakes and ponds program manager for DEC, told those gathered that the state is starting to look for funding for a permanent American observatory buoy to collect and show real-time water quality parameters.
Last month, the Université de Sherbrooke announced the establishment of a permanent observatory on their side of the lake. Lake Memphremagog serves more than 175,000 Canadians with drinking water.
Pierson and other state officials also detailed different ways for volunteers to get involved and support their work — including monitors looking for zebra mussels or cyanobacteria blooms, two of which have been spotted this year, one on Aug. 20.
“President Biden hasn’t opened the border yet for Canadians to come into the U.S., but when he does, the zebra mussels are going to be first in line,” Pierson added. “The Canadians will complain about us sending leachate their way; they get a little revenge by sending zebra mussels our way.”
The Chittenden County resident also expressed personal interest in the PFAS/leachate-treatment research.
“This is something that we need to figure out as a state,” he said. “Be it Newport, be it Winooski, be it Montpelier — it needs to go somewhere. So having the best options to pre-treat it and keep it, to the extent possible, out of our waters, is what I’m personally interested in.”
The forum also included statements from DUMP (Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity), whose petition to designate the lake “in crisis” was the impetus for the meeting, the Memphremagog Watershed Association and Memphrémagog Conservation Inc. as well as Gilles Bélanger, member of parliament for Orford, Quebec, just north of the lake.
A recording of the meeting will be available on the ANR’s website in the next week.