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Monday, April 19, 2021

A Spirited Lewis Creek Advocate and Her Husband Die in Boating Accident

Posted By on Mon, Apr 19, 2021 at 10:50 PM

Marty Illick at Lewis Creek - FILE: CALEB KENNA
  • File: Caleb Kenna
  • Marty Illick at Lewis Creek
Lewis Creek Association founding member Marty Illick and her husband, Terrence Dinnan, died Monday after a small boat capsized in the creek. Their 3-1/2-year-old grandson managed to make his way to safety and back to the couple's home.

The three had been on an outing in the boat near Spear Street in Charlotte, according to Vermont State Police. Fishermen reported to police at about 12:30 p.m. that they had discovered two bodies in the water. Troopers searched for the child for an hour before finding him safe in his grandparents’ car in their driveway. Illick, 70, and Dinnan, 71, lived on Lewis Creek Road.

“The child was wearing a life vest, while the adults were not," police said in a press release. "The child was able to make it to shore and then returned on his own to the vehicle outside the house. He was reunited with his parents at the scene.”

Illick was one of a group of people who founded the influential Lewis Creek Association in the early 1990s to carry out conservation work in several Lake Champlain Valley towns.

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Demand, Prices Drive Construction of Multifamily Homes in Chittenden County

Posted By on Mon, Apr 19, 2021 at 10:30 PM

A worker at a construction site - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • A worker at a construction site
Patrick O’Brien, a senior manager at S.D. Ireland construction company, got a call a few weeks ago from a woman in Montpelier who was hoping to draw the company’s attention to central Vermont.

She was seeking a home, and she knew other people were, too. There are fewer than a half dozen homes for sale in the Vermont capital — one priced at over $1 million.

“She was looking for something where potentially she could age in place,” said O’Brien. “But her general statement was that Montpelier is in dire need of housing of all sorts.”

O’Brien was a logical person to call, because Williston-based S.D. Ireland constructs about 100 units of housing each year. But the company builds only in Chittenden County, and O’Brien said the company has no plans to expand its range. Salaries in the rest of the state aren’t high enough to support the rents landlords would charge, and it’s too expensive to enter an unknown political and permitting landscape, he said. And the company already owns land in Chittenden County.

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Mobile Home Park Co-ops Thrive in Vermont

Posted By on Mon, Apr 19, 2021 at 4:45 AM

Sterling View Mobile Home Park's cooperative board - JAN KUHN
  • Jan Kuhn
  • Sterling View Mobile Home Park's cooperative board
Just hours after the residents of the Sterling View Mobile Home Park in Hyde Park took ownership of their community through a newly formed cooperative on April 2, a pump that was part of the effluent system broke down. Suddenly the group had its first problem to solve as property owners.

“We went from celebrating in the morning to not celebrating in the afternoon,” said Jan Kuhn, a retired elementary school teacher and resident who worked to put the deal together.  

Fortunately, the former owner of the park had a new pump in storage and he donated it. The celebratory mood returned.

“It’s been an adventure, and it’s just beginning,” said Paul Nesky, president of the mobile home park’s board.

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Friday, April 16, 2021

High Schoolers Get Early Access to Register for COVID-19 Vaccine

Posted By on Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 2:23 PM

A Burlington High School hallway - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • A Burlington High School hallway
High school students will get be able to register for COVID-19 vaccines earlier than other residents under 30, state officials announced on Friday, in a last-minute switch intended to allow more in-person graduation ceremonies.

Vermonters ages 16 to 18 may register for vaccines on 10 a.m. Saturday, two days earlier than others in the previously designated 16 to 29 age group. Older members of the group can register beginning at 6 a.m. on Monday.

Gov. Phil Scott said the head start came out of "empathy" for high school students who have had a difficult year. He also noted that the students might otherwise have trouble scheduling timely appointments because the Pfizer vaccine is the only one of three currently approved for people ages 16 and 17.

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Soldier With Lengthy Criminal History Is No Longer in Vermont National Guard

Posted By on Thu, Apr 15, 2021 at 11:11 PM

  • Vermont State Police
  • Daniel Blodgett
Daniel Blodgett, the Vermont National Guard member who served despite a history of criminal offenses going back more than a decade, is no longer with the Guard, its commander told a legislative committee on Thursday. Adj. Gen. Greg Knight also briefly outlined strategies he said the organization is pursuing to better track criminal allegations involving its members.

On March 24, Seven Days reported that Blodgett had maintained his Guard status despite a criminal history that included eight misdemeanor convictions. He's currently facing multiple counts of sexual assault, including of two women who served in the Guard. The military org has wrestled for years with allegations that it has tolerated sexual harassment in its ranks.

Knight spoke before the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee on Thursday. first reported his remarks.
"Daniel Blodgett, who was accused of sexual assault in February, is no longer a member of the Vermont National Guard," Knight told committee members.

He did not elaborate. Knight previously said the allegations against Blodgett were "repulsive," telling attendees at a town hall meeting: “Anybody who chooses to behave in such a way, they don’t deserve to be in uniform.”

Knight on Thursday told lawmakers that he is working to set up more rigorous systems for checking his members' backgrounds, including running more background checks. Members don't always report their arrests to military authorities, Knight said, a problem seen around the country.
Knight says he's working to address what he called "a gap in the information flow between civil law enforcement and the Guard." He said he has communicated with Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, who has approached law enforcement leaders in the state about asking people, when they are charged with a crime, whether they are Guard members.

"That, in turn, should prompt communication to our provost marshal team and then allow us to ... expeditiously address adjudication on the military side," Knight told lawmakers.

Knight has previously acknowledged that the Guard has been "deficient" in training its leaders to punish lawbreakers. He said he would better educate them how to secure punishments, including discharges.

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Report: Trace of PFAS Detected in Shelburne Water

Posted By on Thu, Apr 15, 2021 at 6:41 PM

  • File: Michael Tonn
A new report on the state of America’s drinking water supply is again highlighting the problem of “forever chemicals” in the environment, including a recent positive test result from drinking water in Shelburne.

The Guardian newspaper teamed up with Consumer Reports to sample 120 water systems in the nation, and found that almost all of them — 118 of 120 — had detectable levels of lead, arsenic or PFAS chemicals found in household products from cookware to rugs.

Included in the report was a noteworthy test result from Shelburne that indicated PFAS levels of 5.77 parts per trillion. That’s well below the federal advisory level of 70 parts per trillion and Vermont’s more stringent 20 parts per trillion level.

But it is more than has been reported by the water system serving much of Shelburne, the Champlain Water District, raising questions about how the contaminant made it into the sample.

“We don’t have any PFAS detected in our source water,” said Joseph Duncan, general manager of the Champlain Water District.

The district delivers drinking water from Shelburne Bay to 75,000 people in eight towns, including South Burlington, Essex and Milton.

The district samples for PFAS both at its treatment plant on Queen City Park Road and at points in the water distribution network, but not in people’s homes, he said. 

Tests performed in 2019 and in 2020 both came back as “non-detect,” meaning the sample has less than 2 parts per trillion, and the five PFAS compounds Vermont regulates were considered not detected. The Guardian story also included a result of 1.74 parts per trillion from Bennington, but that falls below what is considered detectable by the state.

Complicating the issue is that the sampling regimen utilized by the publications relied on volunteers, and the conditions under which the water sample was taken could not be confirmed.

PFAS chemicals are prevalent in clothing and a range of consumer goods, and sampling must be done with precision, Duncan noted.

“At the parts-per-trillion level, you have to be very careful with how you collect the sample in order to not cross-contaminate it and wind up with a false positive,” Duncan said.

He stressed he was not questioning the competence of the volunteers or the value of the reporting, and said he supports greater public awareness of water quality issues. Nevertheless, a single data point from an unknown origin that doesn’t align with the district’s own regular sampling results makes drawing conclusions difficult, he said.

Water quality advocate James Ehlers said he found it telling that the district was sampling at the source and not at the point that really matters to customers — the tap.

“I think the way that you sample, in large part, can determine the results that you get,” Ehlers said. “It’s really easy not to find something you’re not looking for.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation required water systems in Vermont to test for the five PFAS chemicals it regulates following the 2016 discovery of widespread contamination of groundwater in Bennington.

A toxin called perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, was detected in private wells near a North Bennington manufacturing plant once operated by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. Among other fines, the company has agreed to pay $25 million to extend municipal water service.

The subsequent testing has turned up 10 water systems in the state, most of them small, that have had results above the 20 ppt standard since 2019. They range from Mount Holly School at 323 parts per trillion to others like the Killington Village Inn at 20.03 parts per trillion. The state is helping the systems perform the testing and fund fixes where possible.

Water systems aren’t the only places where the class of chemicals is turning up. Contamination from the Vermont National Guard Base in South Burlington is reaching the Winooski River, as Seven Days reported in 2019.

For years, soldiers trained with and used firefighting foam containing PFAS, which seeped into the ground and reached groundwater. The Guard has spent millions on cleanup and monitoring efforts that are expected to last years.

Ehlers says a more aggressive response is needed.

“The state needs to be taking this as seriously as it took COVID,” Ehlers said.

There is a bill in the legislature, S.20, that seeks to restrict the sale of consumer products containing PFAS, including some firefighting foam, food packaging, rugs, ski wax and children's toys.

Ehlers says the bill doesn’t go far enough, and should also ban all fluorinated firefighting foams and force landfills to contain their leachate.

Despite the water quality challenges of Lake Champlain, Shelburne Bay is a safe source of drinking water, Duncan said. The water is taken from two intake points in a trench 80-feet below the bay, where surface contamination rarely reaches, he said.

Shelburne Bay is fed by Potash Brook in South Burlington and the LaPlatte River in Shelburne, and contains roughly 3 billion gallons of water, so any PFAS flushing into it would be highly diluted, Duncan noted.

The contamination reported in the Guardian could have been introduced after the water left the lake, from sources such as waterproof tape wrapped around pipe fittings or materials in the fixtures themselves, he said.

While water sampling is generally best done by professionals, Duncan said he supports greater citizen awareness of the problem and legislative efforts to clamp down on PFAS products.

“The more we continue to produce materials with PFAS, the more prevalent it could potentially become in our environment and have the potential to work its way into different water sources,” Duncan said.

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Vermont Extends Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause Through April 23

Posted By on Thu, Apr 15, 2021 at 1:13 PM

A patient receiving a vaccine dose - CATEYEPERSPECTIVE | DREAMSTIME
  • Cateyeperspective | Dreamstime
  • A patient receiving a vaccine dose
Updated on April 16, 2021.

Following federal guidance, Vermont is extending a "pause" on administering COVID-19 vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson through at least April 23.

The Vermont Department of Health announced the move Thursday. It comes after members of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel met on Wednesday and said they needed more time to review a possible link between the vaccine and an extremely rare type of blood clot.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Burlington High School Could Be Demolished After More Contamination Found

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 8:20 PM

Warnings at Burlington High School - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Warnings at Burlington High School
A series of tests have revealed extensive chemical contamination on Burlington High School’s campus that could necessitate a complete tear down.

At a school board meeting on Tuesday, superintendent Tom Flanagan said that cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected in the buildings’ window caulking, block and brick walls, floor-tile adhesive and concrete foundation — as well as in the air and in the soil under and surrounding the school.

“Unfortunately, at each step of the process, we find more materials with PCBs,” Flanagan told the school board. “I’m growing increasingly uneasy about the extent of PCB contamination.”

He said that remediation of the chemicals would cost an estimated $7 million to $12 million — and even that might not reduce the levels of airborne PCBs to below what the state has deemed safe.

The chemicals were found last year as the district prepared for a voter-approved $70 million project to overhaul the high school and the tech center.

But the district shuttered much of the campus, located off of North Avenue in the city’s New North End, the day before classes were to begin last September after testing showed PCBs in some of the buildings.

Queen City high schoolers learned almost fully remotely until March, when they began attending classes two days a week at a former Macy’s department store downtown. The school district funded a renovation of the building and is operating there under a three-and-a-half-year lease it signed in December.
Once a Macy's, now a school - FILE: CAT CUTILLO ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Cat Cutillo ©️ Seven Days
  • Once a Macy's, now a school
Initially, district leaders thought it would take until late summer to figure out the extent of the PCB contamination and decide how to move forward. But Flanagan said that the latest testing results should spur the board to make a decision as early as next month.

“The purpose of tonight really is to make very clear that there’s a serious problem in this project, and we need to take action sooner rather than later,” he told the 12-member school board on Tuesday.
Board members expressed their concerns about the most recent findings.

“Obviously we’ve been trying to patch a sinking ship, so what is it going to take for you guys to let us know this is actually the Titanic?” said school commissioner Jean Waltz. “It just seems like it’s getting worse.”

Commissioner Jeff Wick flagged the high costs for PCB mitigation and suggested that it was time to “stop the bleed” by abandoning the $70 million renovation and moving forward with a plan to build an entirely new high school.

Unclear is whether a new school would — or could — be built on the current campus, or at a different city location.

“I’m sitting here having an anxiety attack because I’m thinking, Where would we go?” commissioner Martine Gulick said. “Maybe you all have information that I don’t have, but that scares me.”

Tom Peterson, a consultant hired to oversee the $70 million renovation project, suggested it could be problematic to build a new high school on the current site. Even if PCB mitigation can be handled cost-effectively, the Institute Road campus is 57 years old and, with PCBs in the soil and in the air, there would be long-term costs for monitoring the buildings and potentially additional remediation.
Building a new facility at a different location would be “a huge lift,” he said, but “at the end of that, you will have a beautiful new high school.”

Flanagan capped the discussion by addressing the board. “It’s no one’s fault that we’re here,” the superintendent said. “We learned about this problem through doing our due diligence.”

As leaders, he said, the school commissioners are being tasked with making hard decisions.

“There are ways out of this and into a high school that we can be proud of,” said Flanagan, “and we need to stay positive and optimistic and know that it’s our responsibility to keep our community safe, and to keep doing this work together.”

The school board’s Building Construction Oversight Committee is scheduled to meet at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday to discuss the issue further.

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Pension Task Force Bill Advances Despite Unions' Objections

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 7:03 PM

  • JESS SUTTNER ©️ Seven Days
Nearly two weeks after Democratic leaders shelved plans to tackle pension reform this legislative session, plans for a task force charged with tackling the issue this summer are taking shape.

A bill approved Wednesday by the House Government Operations Committee would create a 15-member Pension Design and Funding Task Force to generate ideas for fixing the state’s ailing pension system.

The bill would also add three new members to the existing seven-member committee focused on pension investments, which has come under legislative scrutiny for the investments' poor investment returns.

Taken together, the measures would tweak the pension governance structure this legislative session while putting off until next year the more controversial changes to future benefits and contribution rates for the state’s current 17,300 employees and teachers.

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Burlington Airport Readies for Direct Flights to Boston, Dallas

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 3:48 PM

Burlington International Airport - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington International Airport
Gov. Phil Scott has all but promised Vermonters that by July 4, life will be much as it was before the pandemic — at least when it comes to crossing state borders.

Burlington International Airport is ready. On Wednesday, the airfield announced its first direct connection with Dallas, starting on July 3. And on April 7, the airport announced a direct connection with Boston, starting April 29. It will be the first time BTV has provided direct service to and from Boston since 2008.

“There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand,” said Gene Richards, the airport’s director of aviation.

BTV has seen a massive dip in passengers during the pandemic, particularly before the state started vaccinating residents in mid-December. Before COVID-19 came along, about 10,000 passengers came through the airport each week, a number that rose to 15,000 in the summers, said Richards. During the darkest days of 2020, that dwindled to as few as 800 a week, he said.

These days, with direct connections between Burlington and 10 cities, the airport is seeing about 5,000 passengers each week, according to Richards.

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