An unknown black substance dripping from the town-owned bridge that crosses over the White River on Bridge Street in Royalton is likely the cause of skin irritations recently reported by people using the area recreationally.
“It might be creosote, it might be something else. It’s come to our attention that on hot summer days something drips and it’s nasty,” said Mary Russ, executive director of the White River Partnership.
“I’m sorry to hear that someone perhaps got a burn from it. We take that very seriously,” added Russ.
Last week, during the high heat of the Fourth of July, Tracy Borst of Thetford said she and several family members and friends were tubing on the White River, when they stopped to enjoy a picnic lunch under the bridge, a popular spot for recreational use.
“Some of the people in the water noticed an oily film, but didn’t think too much about it,” said Borst. “When we went to get back on our tubes we noticed these black spots on our tubes and we noticed some of us had black spots on us too… it had dripped from the bridge onto us.”
Borst said she and the others tried to rinse the black substance off, but that an oily residue remained on the tubes.
After getting out of the river later in the day, the whole party noticed that even as their sunburns faded, they each had marks left on their skin that continued to burn, said Borst.
“My [21-year-old] son kept saying his legs and feet were just ‘burning up,’” said Borst.
Borst’s son eventually sought medical attention, and the doctor confirmed that exposure to an irritating substance had caused the burning sensation.
Borst said that following the holiday weekend she reached out to several town and state officials about the burns.
Drying It Out?
Royalton Town Administrator Rose Hemond said she received Borst’s voicemail Monday morning.
“From that point on I started making phone calls—I called the road crew, sent information out to the selectboard and we started basically investigating the matter.”
Former town road foreman Richard McCrillis said he’d been aware of the dripping, but that during his 30 years working for the town he had never heard complaints of people being burned by it.
“[The Bridge Street bridge] has been dripping for years, evidently not to this extent … but this dripping goes back to the 90s,” said McCrillis.
McCrillis attributed the drips to the coating of the boards that make up the deck of the bridge.
According to records available through the Vermont Department of Transportation, the bridge was built in 1928, and was last reconstructed in 1982.
“As far as I know we only have a couple other bridges that have wooden decks, but they’ve been changed in recent years, so they’re not treated with the same material. As far as I know this is the only bridge we have drippings from,” said McCrillis.
McCrillis noted that in the 1990s the road crew had tried to address the problem by tearing up the asphalt and attempting to let the wooden boards dry out.
“We left it uncovered for a few years … but that became such a problem trying to keep the runner planks on the bridge … so we put the asphalt back on it,” said McCrillis.
“You’d think whatever is dripping would run out eventually, but it just doesn’t seem to,” he added.
Hemond noted that in her six years working for the town she hadn’t been aware of the issue until she received Borst’s message.
“This is all kind of just unfolding,” said Hemond, “But the town is taking it very seriously.”
Hemond noted that the selectboard addressed the issue at a meeting on Tuesday night.
“The selectboard plans to have the [substance] tested and to continue to investigate … they are concerned about public safety and the environment.”
Hemond noted that she’d been in touch with people at the Vermont Department of Transportation, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the White River Partnership to figure out how best to address the issue.
Hemond noted that aside from Borst’s message, the town offices have not received any reports directly of other people receiving burns after recreating near the Bridge Street Bridge.
If other people have experienced a similar reaction after exposure to the drips, Hemond said they can contact her at the town office.
“Figuring out what that stuff is— that is step one, and then making a plan is step two,” said Russ, noting that her primary concern right now is alerting the public to the potential hazard.
“Certainly the investigation of the substance will be sort of a medium term [solution], so it won’t happen today unfortunately, but it’s definitely on the list. I think the short-term solution needs to be determined, quickly,” emphasized Russ.
A short-term solution might be as simple as posting signs at river access points to alert recreational users to the potential hazards, said Russ.
“It’s really important to us to get to the bottom of this. We’re so lucky to have the White River as a recreational resource and it needs to be a safe place to recreate,” emphasized Russ. “That’s our number one goal and we’ll do what we can to make sure that’s the case as soon as possible.”
Russ said she had been aware that the bridge was dripping for a few years, though not as long as McCrillis had been aware of the issue.
“We’ve been working with the state to incorporate it into the tactical basin plan,” noted Russ, explaining that the tactical basin plan is a report issued by the state every five years to identify priority projects in each river system in the state.
Russ noted that although the Partnership has been aware of the dripping for the last few years, the recent complaint from Borst will help the issue be recognized as a priority, so that the town could potentially receive state funding to help address the problem.
The town was planning to replace the asphalt on top of the wooden planks this year, noted Hemond, and said she hopes a solution to the dripping boards may become apparent during that repair process.
Paul Brocke, Royalton’s current road foreman, did not respond to a request for comments on this report.
-- ZOË NEWMARCO