MONTPELIER >> A former Vermont commissioner of environmental conservation said Monday state officials are vastly underestimating what it would cost to retool infrastructure in 18 cities and towns where heavy rains can cause sewer systems to overflow.
Senior officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation told The Associated Press last week the cost to separate combined sewer and storm water systems likely would top $120 million statewide.
On Monday, Jeff Wennberg, a former commissioner of that department and now the head of public works in Rutland, said the $120 figure "may be off by a factor of 10."
Wennberg, who headed up the DEC under Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, also argued it would be a mistake in some instances to separate the combined storm water and sewer systems. He said that can result in polluted storm water running directly into rivers and lakes.
Wennberg said Rutland had recently completed a project to separate storm water and sewer systems in a residential area comprising about 50 acres. Based on the $5.2 million cost of that project, Rutland would have to spend between $125 million and $150 million to separate combined sewer and storm water systems in all areas of the city served by them, he said.
That cost for one city is more than the state officials estimated it would cost to do the work statewide.
Pete LaFlamme, director of DEC's watershed management program who had joined another official in offering the $120 million estimate last week, said that figure was a rough estimate of an average for projects that could vary widely in cost around the state.
"I don't want to argue with Jeff (Wennberg) over the costs. He has seen the costs firsthand in Rutland," LaFlamme said.
The issue of sewage getting into Vermont's lakes and streams has been highlighted recently in part due to the frequency of such events. Officials said there were 65 such releases reported around the state in the 12 months ending last June. Lawmakers are considering a bill to speed public notification when releases occur, to reduce the chances of people swimming in contaminated water.