By Mike Polhamus
Road salt from Vermont Railway storage sheds in Shelburne has contaminated groundwater to almost five times the state’s enforcement limit, but a representative for the company says the pollution levels are decreasing.
A two-day hearing was held last week in federal court over whether Shelburne can essentially ban the salt sheds in their current setup.
Testing at the site of Vermont Railway’s controversial road salt sheds had found salt in the soil, to the point that groundwater concentrations rose over the past year from 5 milligrams per liter to more than 1,200 milligrams per liter. The company, which is part of Vermont Rail System, commissioned testing to comply with required monitoring.
The state has set an enforcement limit for chloride in groundwater at 250 milligrams per liter.
New curbs recently installed on the site will prevent stormwater from further polluting the subterranean water, and test wells are already showing improved results, an attorney for the company said.
The highest levels of chloride were measured in a monitoring well at the site Aug. 29. On Sept. 29 measurements at the same well showed a chloride concentration of 810 milligrams per liter.
The high chloride levels are worrying, critics say, because there don’t appear to be assurances in place that will prevent Vermont Railway from polluting Vermont waters – whether or not the curbs work as hoped.
Courts have repeatedly blocked Shelburne’s attempts to prevent the sheds’ construction or to place the sheds under stricter regulations. To a large extent, what’s on the railroad company’s property is governed by federal law, and not by state or municipal law, the courts have said.
The town’s latest salvo in that effort is the newly adopted ordinance regulating hazardous materials storage and handling, which is the subject of the recent activity in federal court. The new measure seeks to cap the allowable quantity of salt on any property to 550 tons. The railroad facililty can store up to 80,000 tons.
“What the town has been saying for the last two years [is that] this project has a significant impact on the environment,” said Shelburne town attorney Claudine Safar. “We now have proof that our worst fears have come true.”
Town leaders worry that polluted groundwater beneath the salt sheds will empty into the LaPlatte River, which itself empties into Lake Champlain. Both bodies of water are currently rated as “impaired,” meaning they’re already severely polluted, Safar said.
But the wells have served their purpose and alerted Vermont Railway officials to a problem, said an attorney for the company, Marc Heath, of Burlington-based firm Downs Rachlin Martin.
Salt sometimes sticks to the tires of machinery that moves it from the storage piles to the trucks that transport it throughout Vermont, Heath said. Runoff is supposed to carry that residual salt into a collection pond, but it appears that in at least one part of the facility the runoff didn’t end up in the pond, he said.
Vermont Railway has used the information from the monitoring wells to fix the problem, Heath said.
The company doesn’t want any excess quantity of its product to flow into the ground, Heath said, and the salt sheds are state-of-the-art facilities designed to prevent that sort of waste.
“Very little salt is going to be actually escaping this facility,” he said. “Every bit of salt in these storage sheds gets shipped to towns like Shelburne … (where) they spread it on the roads.”
Town Manager Joe Colangelo said the town buys its road salt from Cargill, the company that stores its salt at the sheds. The town spreads 800 to 1,400 tons of salt on its roads each year, he said. Selectboard Chair Gary von Stange said the board will discuss re-evaluating that practice at its meeting Nov. 14.
What’s more, Heath said, road salt — which is chemically identical to table salt — isn’t hazardous material. Excessive amounts of it can pose problems, but “so can milk. If you dump too much milk in a river, it can kill the fish,” he said.
Town officials say the salt sheds shouldn’t be next to high-quality and sensitive wetlands. They also say the agency that appears to be responsible for overseeing the salt sheds’ water pollution — the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation — isn’t stepping in to prevent it.
A representative of the department said there’s little it can do. Federal law exempts the structures from many forms of review Vermont uses to protect the environment, such as Act 250, said Kevin Burke, an environmental analyst with the DEC’s Watershed Management Division.
But the department does have the authority to act if the salt sheds harm Vermont’s public waters, he said. The salt sheds have been in operation for only a year, however, and an annual report that’s due from Vermont Railway will provide data showing whether the state can or needs to do something, Burke said.
That data includes the test results showing a monitoring well registering 1,200 milligrams per liter of chloride, Burke said. Shelburne appears to have gotten this information ahead of the state, possibly through its involvement in the lawsuit, he said.
If the salt sheds are indeed polluting groundwater, the laws that govern this type of pollution are somewhat limited, said Jon Groveman, policy and water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “[But] they don’t have the right to discharge willy-nilly into surface and ground waters,” Groveman said.
“Groundwater is a vital resource, and it’s a public trust resource in Vermont,” he said, adding that cases like this demonstrate it is a threatened public resource in a state with the tools and the obligation to protect it.