After half-million gallon spill into northern VT river, ‘radio silence’ from lab
by Logan Solomon, Community News Service
NORTH TROY — Alarmingly high levels of E.coli were found in an early February sample from a small town wastewater facility outflow into the Missisquoi River, but local officials say the testing lab didn’t tell them until weeks later — meaning the bacteria could have continued to leave the plant for most of the month.
And it isn’t the first time that’s happened in recent years.
“I usually get a phone call (when results are high),” said Karson McMahon, chief operator of the North Troy Wastewater Treatment Facility. “Unfortunately, they did not call me. I thought everything was okay. I didn’t see anything until they sent me the (full) results.”
By that point at least 500,000 gallons of discharge had gone into the river.
Each month, multiple routine wastewater samples from North Troy are sent to Endyne Labs, a chemical and microbiological laboratory, to test for indicators of the plant’s impact on water quality. Typically, McMahon said, operators receive a call from the laboratory as soon as it detects a pollutant above a certain threshold so that the situation can be remedied as quickly as possible.
In this instance, McMahon said he received radio silence, finding out about the problem in paperwork, weeks later.
The problem was certainly worth communicating. E.coli concentrations from the Feb. 8 sample were so high that you would find 8,500 probable colonies in a sample the volume of a standard Coca-Cola can.
That’s a level hundreds of times more than what is deemed safe for recreating in a water body by the federal government and more than 1,000 times the safe level for consuming bottled water.
This is concerning, given that the facility discharges into the Missisquoi River, a recreation spot where many fish and swim.
Why were the results delayed? It’s hard to say — Endyne representatives declined to make themselves available for an interview after repeated requests.
Once McMahon was made aware of the high test results, he said, he conducted a resampling Feb. 27 that showed no E.coli. He then filed a public notice on March 2 — meaning the first time members of the community would have been alerted to the potential problem was almost a month after the water sample was taken.
McMahon does not think the original results are accurate, noting the water’s clean appearance and a history of the lab sending results that appeared questionable.
In January 2022, according to state records, McMahon filed a public notice about a routine water sample that the lab said contained a high amount of E.coli, an amount roughly half the level of the February sample a year later. But, he noted in the report, the tank used to disinfect the wastewater had been cleaned just two days beforehand.
“Inspection of the disinfection system and all other components showed no reason for high E.coli,” McMahon wrote in the report.
However, McMahon understands that he is not in the position to make that sort of judgment.
“We can’t prove it. We’re not laboratory techs, but we kind of feel like it was possibly a mistake in the lab,” he said. “But again, we can’t really argue that.”
This also isn’t the first time McMahon has described delayed test results from Endyne concerning E.coli in the plant’s discharge.
In May 2021, state records show, McMahon wrote that his team wasn’t notified by the lab for more than a week about a sample that tested high for E.coli concentrations, although at significantly less levels than the other results mentioned. Over a span of almost two weeks before the issue was resolved, he wrote, about 410,000 gallons of discharge went into the river.
Endyne Labs’ website says the company has laboratories in Vermont, New York and New Hampshire capable of performing any necessary testing for municipal wastewater operators.
McMahon’s claim raises questions about the accuracy of wastewater discharge test results elsewhere in the state. For many years Endyne Labs has provided water testing services to dozens of municipalities across Vermont. If tests are inaccurate — or results are delayed — plant operators across the state may be misguided in the steps they take, posing risks to the environment and people’s health.
In North Troy, the delayed notification meant McMahon did not take an earlier resampling. So he does not know when exactly E.coli stopped discharging from the plant. But he said it certainly stopped flowing from the plant at some point before that resampling.
“Do I think that E.coli was coming out (of the plant) the whole time?” he asked himself. “Absolutely not.”
But E.coli was leaving the plant for a while. The public notice says 500,000 to 1 million gallons left the plant. The gallon-to-gallon levels are unknown. All that can be said is that E.coli concentrations were very high Feb. 8 and non-existent Feb. 27.
I’m concerned about the test labs in the state and their capacity to perform these tests, in light of all the new cannabis testing going on these days, not to mention the staff shortages /unfilled tech positions and general lack of labs in general, is it possible the labs are overwhelmed???
Vermonters have reason to question Endyne’s test results.
The company is owned by Jeff Nelson, Craig Heindel, and Harry Locker (confirm this with the Secretary of State’s office, I just did). Jeff Nelson is well known as an “expert” working for VHB (previously Pioneer Environmental) doing work for the state, developers and polluting companies. Jeff Nelson has been involved in many developments in Vermont — including stormwater permits for Lowell and Deerfield Wind, and currently he is the Vermont face of the 20 MW Shaftsbury Solar proposal.
Craig Heindel is an “expert” with Waite-Heindel Environmental (previously Heindel & Noyes). They sometimes have worked as a team with Jeff doing stormwater work while Craig does groundwater.
Jeff And Craig have been experts on water in numerous permitting cases in Vermont for decades, almost always on the side of developers. I can think of one case where Craig worked for opponents. I am not aware of any where Jeff worked for anyone other than those seeking permits from ANR. Harry B. Locker runs the lab at Endyne. I complained to then-Sec. of ANR Wibs McLain in 2003 about the obvious conflict of interest, that the state should not be contracting with a lab run by people who are also paid to work for the companies the state regulates. Nothing changed.
Then in about 2004-2005, I was in a stakeholder process with multi-national mining and mineral processing company Omya. We agreed on the experts to hire after I raised questions about the water quality monitoring taking place, done by Jeff Nelson. The Massachusetts company that was hired to review everything confirmed my suspicions that there were not enough wells, they were not in the right place. Groundwater contamination was found after more investigation was done.
The Mass. company had a very professional Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) person. She evaluated Endyne, because that was the lab being used by Omya. She reported to us at a meeting that Endyne essentially failed her review — the lab did not practice chain-of-custody procedures, and she identified a long list of failures. Supposedly Endyne cleaned up its practices, but as far as I know, Omya has continued to use the Mass. firm and a different lab, not Endyne, for its testing.
There used to be a very good water lab in Vermont, but sadly Endyne bought it.
More recently, we engaged in a stakeholder process with Agrimark/Cabot over its trucking and spraying of cheese plant wash water. When I learned that they were using Endyne, I asked them to use a different lab. They agreed, but without telling us, chose to do split samples and also send them to Endyne. Unfortunately they let Endyne know that was happening. So it wasn’t a blind test comparison. Only one sample came out different.
The state of Vermont should not be using Endyne for anything related to companies regulated by the state.
Apparently too busy attending drag shows to notice.
More little secrets and conflicts of interest, seems Vermont has many ,such as the Judicial system, what a wonderful state we live in ! But we know how money talks .