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Source: Nancy on Norwalk

Norwalk activist fears future storm surge would flood sewage treatment plant


Posted: December 2, 2013
Originally Published: December 2, 2013

NORWALK, Conn. – Smelly sewage is just one of the reasons some Norwalk residents and other concerned citizen have prompted the state to have a public hearing Monday night, to the consternation of Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord, who said it is costing the city untold dollars.

A concern for transparency, civility and emergency management are some of the issues raised by people who signed a petition circulated by environmental activist Diane Lauricella requesting the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to hold the hearing on the city’s renewal of its sewage treatment plant water discharge permit tonight on South Smith Street.

A little more than a year ago, Superstorm Sandy’s storm surge came within inches of flooding the dike at the plant, Lauricella said.

“I am quite concerned about how our plant may or may not survive a storm surge. We were very lucky that it didn’t rain more, (that) it wasn’t high tide, that the winds were such that it didn’t push even more of the water up,” she said. “We were just lucky and luck isn’t going to do it for us in Norwalk because there may be a day when we’re unlucky.”

Norwalk has never had to go through a hearing process to renew its permit, Alvord said.

“It has already cost the city,” Alvord said. “It’s not just one public hearing. We started a couple of months ago. We had to go to status conferences in Hartford. We had to provide documents. We had discovery. There’s been other pre-meeting depositions, sworn testimony, so then you’ve got this public hearing on the second, and then you’ve got another public hearing in Hartford following that. I’ve had staff that has had to spend time putting together documents, traveling to Hartford and back, and we had to pay an outside counsel to do research. We had to get letters of support from the Harbor Management Commission, the Shellfish Commission, the Water Quality Commission – for an award-winning treatment plant.”

Lauricella said she urged the state to hold a public information session. Talking to the council’s Public Works Committee might have been an option, she said, but she and others felt that was out of the question, given the attitudes expressed by committee Chairman David McCarthy (R-District E) and others, she said.

“We do not feel at the time and our history with the Public Works Committee, Mr. McCarthy as chair, the mayor (Moccia), and Mr. Alvord, that we would even be allowed to speak freely and at will without fear of retribution,” she said. “We felt that we would not have a fair and transparent process. We decided that this was the only mechanism where we could be assured that we could submit our concerns without being cut short. … We can’t speak on and on, but we have to have the ability to be heard and it will be recorded.”

Lauricella said there is also a problem with process – none of the city’s governmental boards that are concerned with water quality were consulted about the application to renew the permit, she said.

Alvord said the facility is state of the art, “the best process we’ve ever had,” with some new equipment.

“Is this a colossal waste of time for a plant that operates extremely well? In my view, yes it is,” he said. “I can’t say anything else because I would be lying to you if I did. But there is a protocol at the state that provides if somebody wants to demand a public hearing so they can get up and speak. They have the right to do it. That’s what she did and I just don’t think anybody who signed the petition understood what it was costing them or costing the city.”

Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson is one of the 36 people who signed the petition. He said the city has not done anything about the smells coming from the plant on occasion.

“It wouldn’t be expensive because there wouldn’t be a hearing if they did what they’ve supposed to do. If they had their fans running like they’re supposed to, negative pressure in the place, have their filters working and their fans working, we wouldn’t get any odor,” he said.

Calls to the city do no good and denials from Alvord that there is a smell are a “flim-flam,” he said.

The city is permitted to chlorinate sewage and release it when the system is overloaded, bypassing standard procedures. That shouldn’t need to happen, he said.

“They’re saying our street drains and our sewer systems aren’t tied in, but when it rains they gotta go on the bypass,” he said.

The Shellfish Commission was never notified that the permit was going to be renewed, he said, and he refuted Alvord’s assertion there was a “letter of support” sent by the Shellfish Commission.

“He never got a letter from us. I’m the chair of the Shellfish Commission,” he said. “I’ll tell you the truth. I live in East Norwalk. I’ve complained to the mayor (Moccia), years ago. It was like deaf ears. Whatever Hal Alvord said was what it was. That’s why I just didn’t complain because it wasn’t doing any good.”

Harbor Commission member Tony D’Andrea also signed the petition. D’Andrea, formerly the commission chairman, said he signed it because he believes in transparency and civility in government. Sewage treatment is an important issue on a national scale, but Norwalk and Operations Management International (OMI), the operator of the privatized treatment plant, are living up to the conditions of their contract, the standards that are in place, he said. He never hears anything from the Department of Health about unhealthy water, he said.

“They’re exceeding the requirements of their permit,” he said. “There are not too many layers of our government that are exceeding our expectations.”

But you never know, some brilliant mind might show up at a public hearing and offer better ideas, he said.

Ron Makszin, an East Norwalk resident who signed the petition, said he did it because there are smells.

“It’s like every other day, sometimes a couple of weeks at a time,” he said. “More so in the summer time.”

One Richards Avenue woman didn’t know anything about the issue – she signed it because a friend thought it was a good idea, she said. A Hamden man said he signed it because he is concerned about the environment and wants to encourage government oversight.

Louis Burch said he is program coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“Many parts of the state are still served by severely outdated sewage infrastructure,” he said. “Norwalk has taken steps in recent years to improve, particularly in the area of storm water infrastructure. Norwalk is definitely a model that we would really like to see other municipalities follow. One thing that is critical is that we do not allow the fact that we have made improvements in some areas in recent memory to prevent us from keeping up on basic maintenance that needs to happen as well as keeping up with the current technology, the best available technology.”

The petition was straight forward, with a “Let’s gets everyone on the record” approach, he said.

“That kind of thing is important when it comes to city agencies or state agencies, state officials who are working on these kind of issues, that they, too, look at public testimony,” he said.

Norwalk’s plant may have come close to flooding during Sandy, but it did much better than other plants in the area. While 50 gallons of sewage escaped from the main plant and 900 gallons from the Westport Avenue pump station, Bridgeport sent 19.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage out to Long Island Sound and Stamford released 1.46 million gallons, according to Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists.

“We have a concern about emergency management, about the ability of that dike to hold, because of the pressures when you have a storm surge,” Lauricella said. “… We’re concerned about the backup energy generation intended to run the pumps and we’ll be discussing that. We are concerned about the integrity of the dike – I have photos to prove it.”

Those photos will be presented at the hearing, she said. The hearing is at 6 p.m. at the DPW Center’s first floor cafeteria, located at 15 South Smith St., near Fort Point Street. Look for directional signage marked “Water Quality Permit Hearing.”

Lauricella said she is not trying to deny Norwalk its permit.

“We want, of course, this plant to have a renewal of their permit, but we would like to add conditions and seek answers to our concerns,” she said.

The hearing will be continued at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Hartford. Written comments can be submitted at either hearing or by email to deep.adjudications@ct.gov or faxed to 860-424-4052. You must put the application number – 20101482 – on your correspondence.

Alvord did not give a dollar figure on the city’s expenses because of the hearings.

“We’re not counting every hour and every minute so it would be hard to substantiate that,” he said.

Lauricella said she would have preferred an informational session in the City Hall community room, but state officials would not allow it.

“It is not me who is causing the expense,” she said. “It is the city of Norwalk, the DEEP who refused to allow us, the citizens, a compromise and negotiate for a reasonable condition.”