Norwich officials seek solution to bridge’s chemical leak

Peter Orner points to contaminants dripping down the wall of Bridge 12, which carries Moore Lane over Bloody Brook, near his home in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, May 30, 2024. The timber bridge has been treated with creosote and emulsified asphalt, which liquifies when temperatures rise, and despite the erection of a containment structure intended to address the problem, the bridge has continued to discharge contaminants into the brook. “It’s unsustainable,” Orner said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Peter Orner points to contaminants dripping down the wall of Bridge 12, which carries Moore Lane over Bloody Brook, near his home in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, May 30, 2024. The timber bridge has been treated with creosote and emulsified asphalt, which liquifies when temperatures rise, and despite the erection of a containment structure intended to address the problem, the bridge has continued to discharge contaminants into the brook. “It’s unsustainable,” Orner said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Alex Driehaus

Bridge 12, which carries Moore Lane over Bloody Brook in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, May 30, 2024. A containment system was implemented under the bridge to catch toxic runoff less than two years ago, and the discharge has once again started overflowing and running into the water. “It’s basically a diaper system,” said neighbor Peter Orner, “and diapers get full.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Bridge 12, which carries Moore Lane over Bloody Brook in Norwich, Vt., on Thursday, May 30, 2024. A containment system was implemented under the bridge to catch toxic runoff less than two years ago, and the discharge has once again started overflowing and running into the water. “It’s basically a diaper system,” said neighbor Peter Orner, “and diapers get full.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Alex Driehaus

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-03-2024 6:01 PM

NORWICH — Hazardous chemicals appear to be leaking again from a town bridge that crosses Bloody Brook, driving town officials to consider new solutions to mitigate the continuing environmental threat.

Petroleum-based chemicals have been dripping down an abutment of Moore Lane Bridge, less than two years after the town installed a containment system designed to capture the toxic discharge, Town Manager Brennan Duffy told the Selectboard at a May 22 meeting.

Staff from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation found residue of an asphalt emulsion on an abutment beneath bridge deck during an inspection on May 17. It is still unknown if any chemicals have entered the brook, Duffy said.

The $62,000 containment system was installed in fall of 2022 to stop the chemicals from leaching through the wooden planks that form the bridge’s deck. The system, referred to as a “diaper” by its engineers, is positioned underneath the bridge deck to catch the emulsion or other pollutants that fall through the planks.

“And diapers get full,” said Norwich resident Peter Orner, whose home neighbors the bridge.

Moore Lane, where the 35 year-old bridge is located, is a short residential street near Huntley Meadows athletic fields. There are two homes on Moore Lane, which connects Beaver Meadow Road and Turnpike Road, leading from Norwich’s downtown to the rural outskirts.

The system had appeared to be effective for over a year, Orner said in an interview. The pungent chemical odor that previously emanated from the structure had disappeared. But when Orner’s friend said in April that he smelled the odor again when crossing the bridge, Orner went under the bridge to investigate. On one abutment, thick black or brown stains ran down the concrete facade, their streaks traveling downward to the bridge’s foundation, inches above the water line.

“That (concrete) was white two years ago,” Orner said.

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Orner, who alerted DEC’s Spill Program last month about the new breach, has been voicing his concerns about the bridge since 2019, when he first contacted town officials about the chemical odor and the oily discharge spilling into the brook.

“At the beginning, five years ago, they said, ‘Oh, it’s just a weeping bridge — very common in Vermont (and) harmless’,” Orner said. “This asphalt emulsion has very hazardous chemicals in it. And it keeps flowing into the brook and contaminating the environment.”

In 2021, the state Spill Program issued a directive to Norwich to stop the discharge and recommended an analysis to determine what chemicals were leaking into the brook.

An analysis in 2022 by the Vermont-based environmental-consultant firm Murray & Masterson found the chemical naphthalene, which the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans and can, with acute exposure, cause hemolytic anemia, damage to the liver and neurological damage. The sample also found two organic compounds, fluoranthene and benzo(a)pyrene, which — like naphthalene — are on a list of pollutants that the EPA regulates as part of the Clean Water Act.

Those risks are on Orner’s mind.

“Kids play down here,” Orner, a parent, said of the area of the brook near the bridge. “There are some really nice swimming holes for smaller kids.”

Town staff have met with engineering and construction consultants to discuss immediate solutions to stop the leak, Duffy said on May 22. The town manager recommended bringing back the contractors who built the existing containment system — Winterset Incorporated, a Lyndonville, Vt. company — to analyze the system failure. This might require disassembling the containment structure to determine what is occurring beneath the planks, he said.

But these solutions would only be temporary fixes, equatable to putting “Band-Aids on the problem,” Duffy said.

A permanent remediation, such as replacing or rehabilitating the bridge, while costly, might be necessary to ensure the town is complying with state and federal clean water regulations, Duffy said.

“We kind of dodged a bullet last year,” Duffy said. “But that bullet has turned around and is coming back at us.”

Some board members expressed mixed feelings about investing in a costly mitigation solution before knowing what the state might require.

At present, DEC has not issued the town a new directive, though the Spill Program’s manager, James Donaldson, asked the town to share their plan to address the breach, Donaldson said in a phone interview.

DEC’s purview is specifically on keeping the waterways clean and free of hazardous contaminants, Donaldson said. Communities are allowed to determine how to achieve that outcome.

“We are not literally telling (Norwich) to remove the bridge,” Donaldson said. “We have only told them to stop the discharge.”

Duffy said he would provide updates on the plan at the next Selectboard meeting on Wednesday, June 12.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.