Updated, 1:40 p.m.: Edit; 5:56 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Common Council members on Tuesday held off on agreeing to Eversource’s plan to bury high voltage lines under the Norwalk River, so that officials could request more information.
The move came after members of the Harbor Management and Shellfish Commissions said Eversource lied to them, and Third Taxing District Commissioner Debora Goldstein said the application was being made in such a way as to avoid an environmental impact analysis of the plan to dig up Veterans Park.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Eversource must remove the catenaries from the Walk Bridge, the railroad bridge over the Norwalk River, by 2020, Department of Public Works DPW Principal Engineer Lisa Burns explained at the joint meeting of the Public Works Committee and the Recreation and Parks Committee.
The City in September 2016 requested that Eversource put the 115 kilowatt cables underground. The request was made directly to Eversource because the Connecticut Department of Transportation was not getting the message, Burns said.
Burns explained that if the Army Corp application isn’t submitted soon, Eversource may move to construct overhead cables, because the Army Corp application takes at least a year and Eversource is obligated to remove the catenaries by 2020.
Most of the citizens present for the joint meeting agreed that moving the cables underground is the preferable option, but two said the environmental impacts were a potential issue.
The Redevelopment Agency has worked for nearly 50 years to relocate power lines underground for aesthetic and safety reasons, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Senior Project Manager Susan Sweitzer said.
The $150 million renovation of the Washington Village neighborhood might be less sustainable if the “eyesore” of overhead power lines is allowed, because it will be harder to rent market rate apartments, Norwalk Housing Authority Executive Director Adam Bovilsky said.
“I think it’s important that we not put such an eyesore in a community that often feels put upon by the city, where individuals live next to industrial zones, and other more urban or industrial type of buildings and structures,” Bovilsky said. “So the Norwalk Housing Authority wants to weigh in heavily in favor of placing these power lines underground.”
“Our only issue is the direction that it’s taking,” Harbor Management Commission Vice Chairman John Romano said. Romano called Eversource “less than forthcoming,” and said many promised meetings don’t materialize.
“We are not against it, we are just against the route as it is. The city spent tons of money putting in new docks. There’s more work to be done,” he said.
The cable would go under the dock pilings. Romano and others say that Eversource will have to give permission for any work in that area, if the cable is there.
The Harbor Management and Shellfish Commission have not signed off and had their questions answered, former Harbor Management Commissioner Diane Lauricella said. She opined that the underground cable shouldn’t go south of the Stroffolino Bridge, where “every spot” contains floatable oil that was left in the ground from an oil tank company.
“Why would you want to aggravate or begin a bigger problem than you have now?” she asked. Lauricella noted that ConnDOT is going to be digging north of the Stroffolino Bridge and stirring that up, so the cable could go there to minimize toxic releases.
Overhead power lines are restored to operation quickly after a storm, Goldstein said, speaking for the Taxing District.
“The aesthetics of the harbor pale in comparison to the idea that environmental contamination might be stored in Vets Park, might in fact impact your shellfish business for the entire city. It might impede all the recreation uses of the harbor, and so on and so forth,” she said. She acknowledged that the “ship has sailed” because the City chose this path.
Eversource will dig deep pits on either side of the river and fill them with chemicals, she said.
“That storm last week with epic amounts of flooding, you’re going to tell me that they’re going to be able to contain the mud in that pit, with that amount of water coming in?” Goldstein said. “We are playing with fire trying to contaminate that side, digging under vets park, which is a known garbage dump with possible toxins in there that have never been fully evaluated, in an area that is known to have had hat manufacturing, mercury in the processes. I can go on.”
“These routing options don’t get just engineered overnight… to go from a concept to an actual preliminary design takes months of work,” Burns said, explaining that Eversource worked on the plan between October 2017 and August.
The selected option would route the cable well below the dock pilings — as deep as 30 feet under the river bed. The cable would surface at 70 and 90 Water Streets, close to the property line to allow for future development, she said.
Running the cable down by the park’s basketball courts, which would take them away from the docks, isn’t feasible because there’s a “permit process that needs to be adhered to for Federal Highway Administration” and the cable “would put a permanent encumbrance underground and across the park,” which would “not be acceptable for funding purposes,” she said.
Construction can only be done between November and February, she said.
“Everybody” agrees the underground cable is the way to go, Public Works Committee Chairman John Igneri (D-District E) said. He explained that the decision is up to the Common Council and invited more questions.
“I understand the urgency but it’s putting us in a critical scenario where there could be adverse effects to the future use,” Romano said. “We were told by Eversource that they could not take turns. We found to the contrary. We investigated other municipalities, other underground utilities. It was totally, we were led wrong.”
Eversource has been stalling, he said, and “it’s not fair to our Commissions.”
“You may as well disband them if you’re not going to listen to them.”
If the cable goes under the docks, “we are limited on future design and building in that area,” Harbor Management Commissioner John Pinto said.
“You basically give our dock to Eversource,” Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson said. “I don’t understand why this wasn’t stopped in the beginning.”
“Just like any utility, we don’t need express permission to do anything in the water, from Eversource,” Burns said. “We need to work and know where they are located but we don’t need their permission.”
Eversource said the City would need permission, Johnson and others said.
“I know it’s the cheapest way but why did they choose to go straight through our brand-new docks?” Third Taxing District Commissioner Pam Parkington asked.
Because the Eversource project isn’t technically part of the Walk Bridge project, it wasn’t subjected to the environmental analysis required by federal law, Goldstein said. She later mentioned the difference between an application to the Connecticut Siting Council and the application for a declaratory ruling.
The Army Corp of Engineers Section 408 permit is usually one of the last things to be done but Eversource goes and gets all the approvals before going to the Siting Council to make it appear everyone agrees, getting them around the environmental review, she said.
The Public Works Committee later voted to table a motion to authorize Mayor Harry Rilling to send a letter indicating no objection for Eversource’s Section 408 permit, to see if Corporation Counsel can clarify the City’s rights if the cable goes under the Veterans Park dock and to see if an environmental analysis will be bypassed.
The new information may come in ahead of Tuesday’s Council meeting; if members are satisfied, the item could proceed to a vote.
“There are some real environmental concerns,” Michael Corsello (D-At Large) said. “I remember Duffy Field. God knows what’s in there. You start drilling around there, I would like to see some sort of environmental study.”
Corporation Counsel “needs to look at the language to see what rights they have to (prevent) us to repair our own docks,” he said.
It should be easy to clarify, Tom Livingston (D-District E), said.
The Council would not be approving construction but saying they can go ahead with an application, Igneri said.
“I hate being rushed,” Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) said. “…It seems an unfortunate series of events, where we get to this point where now if we don’t do it in a month it’s all messed up.”
Corsello mentioned a July meeting with Eversource, which he said went well. Burns said Eversource walked out unhappy, threatening to go the aerial route because there appeared to be no support for the underground cable.
The Section 408 letter was expected to be on the August Public Works Committee agenda but was pulled, she said.
Corsello called that news surprising and said overhead cables “are not state of the art, as far as I know, in 2018 with the severity of the weather. Yes, it’s less expensive to initially install it but when you have to make emergency repairs to overhead wires in the long term it becomes more expensive and as a result, utility companies don’t want to put them overhead.”