Health Matters

Protecting Charlotte’s water from human activity

By James Hyde | Contributor

A basic canon of public health practice is that prevention is always the most effective and least costly strategy. What this means for our drinking water is that we must protect the water we have from further threats resulting from human (and animal) activity on and near the surface.

Lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, followed by revelations of ground water contamination by the chemical PFOA in North Bennington and 11 other Vermont sites, should provide a wakeup call for all of us in Charlotte. The good news for us is that it does not appear at this time that PFOA was ever used in Charlotte. However, there are plenty of other potential reasons for vigilance going forward.

Landfills. Charlotte has had at one time or another at least three landfills. The largest and best known is the landfill on Plouffe Lane in East Charlotte. This site has been covered with soil and vegetation since 1992. Three monitoring wells are checked semi-annually for evidence of contamination. Testing data show some evidence of arsenic and iron as well as very low levels of organic compounds (October 2015). The closing of landfills in Charlotte and the establishment of the Chittenden County Solid Waste Disposal Program is a success story. However, it is critical to continue to monitor these sites.

Population growth. Since 1970 the population of Charlotte has doubled while the number of working farms and acres under cultivation has declined. Growth obviously puts pressure on wetlands, forests and soils that control runoff, protect groundwater aquifers and reduce pollution of surface waters. Charlotte is further challenged by the abundance of clay in the soils, which limits the capacity of waste-water management systems on which virtually all of us rely.

Agriculture and farming. These are inextricably tied to Charlotte’s past and, hopefully, its future. But these activities are under increasing scrutiny because of the potential adverse effects that certain practices can have on water and the food supply. The use of herbicides, such as atrazine (for example, Aatrex) and glyphosate (for example, Roundup), and of pretreated seeds can yield breakdown products that may end up in drinking water. (Atrazine is of particular concern as it is heavily used in corn growing and is an endocrine disruptor possibly associated with adverse reproductive outcomes.) While no data track the use of these products in Charlotte specifically, data from the Vermont Agency on Agriculture from 2006-2010 showed at least a 6-percent detection rate for herbicides in a sample of 675 wells from around the state.

Large-scale waste management practices can also contaminate ground water and surface water with animal pathogens and antibiotics used in animal feed. Indeed, nitrate contamination from fertilizer and animal and human waste may be a more serious problem than even herbicides and pesticides.

Most of these threats can be controlled or eliminated through the use of best practices and by careful monitoring of runoff. The scale of farming operations in a place like Charlotte is nothing like it is in other parts of the country. Nonetheless it’s important that we applaud and celebrate local farmers using best waste management practices and encourage others to follow suit.

Manufacturing. Charlotte has few manufacturing or other businesses that use chemicals like PFOA that might pose a threat to ground and surface waters. However, at least two entities, VELCO and the Vermont Railway, make use of Charlotte for their business and do pose a potential threat to the town’s drinking water and general safety.

The use of herbicides and pesticides along the Vermont Railway and VELCO right of way is an obvious area of concern. Data on herbicide usage by “utilities” is hard to quantify and is made more opaque by eco-friendly verbiage in official reports. Neither utility is required to test nearby ground or surface waters. Vermont Railway is currently involved in a controversy surrounding the use of a site in Shelburne adjacent to the LaPlatte River [see photo on page 10] as a depot for the storage of road salt. The lack of meaningful response to community concerns about this obvious potential hazard should provide further cause for alarm.

In addition, Vermont Railway cars pass through Charlotte several times each day, as do hundreds of long-haul trucks using the Route 7 corridor, many carrying hazardous substances. CVFRS has responded to hundreds of small hazardous-material spills in Charlotte, with a significant percentage of these spills associated with vehicle accidents. Most of these spills have been resolved with minimal residual impact. However, according to Chris Davis, assistant fire chief and Charlotte’s emergency management director: “No town or city in Vermont is equipped to deal with a hazardous material release or spill of a rail-car size quantity. Assistance and resources must be brought in from other parts of the state and New England region which takes time.”

Not unrelated is the controversy that has arisen from the Vermont Railway’s decision to park rail cars loaded with propane along the siding just north of the Ferry Road crossing. Dr. Lydia Clemmons of Citizens for Responsible Railroads points out that an accident involving these cars could have catastrophic impact on nearby residents, not to mention the long-term damage to ground and surface water supplies.

Many of these threats and concerns have been identified in Charlotte’s Town Plan. I urge you to read it. Scores of your fellow residents have spent hundreds of hours sorting through these problems and identifying solutions to balance a broad array of interests. Additionally, groups such as the Lewis Creek Watershed Association, Ahead of the Storm and Citizens for Responsible Railroads have done an outstanding job of identifying many of the perils we face. But these tasks can’t be left to others. We each have a role to play as stewards of our environment.

Pollution of the air or water inexorably spreads. It effects everything downstream—plants, animals, humans. If it’s a one-time, acute event, it can sometimes be contained with the right technology. If it’s ongoing, the risks are far greater. The answer to the acute event is vigilance, monitoring and rapid response. The answer to ongoing source pollution rests with us here today.

James Hyde lives in Charlotte and is emeritus associate professor of public health at the Tufts University School of Medicine. This is the last of a series of three columns on Charlotte’s ground water resources; previous columns appeared in the April 7 and 21 issues of The News.

Additional resources:

Citizens for Responsible Railroads:

Lewis Creek Association:

Watersheds United Vermont:

Vermont Agency of Agriculture–Water Monitoring: Vermont Electric Power Company VELCO:

Vermont Railway: