Cherichetti: Norwalk River’s reported lead results not worrisome; more testing planned

The Norwalk River, north of the Walk Bridge.

Updated, 1:10 p.m.: story revised; 12:44 p.m.: Headline revised; 7:49 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – The comparison of the lead levels in the Norwalk River to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is “outrageous,” Norwalk officials said Thursday.

“The EPA sets different acceptable lead levels for drinking water, fresh water, and salt water. For salt water, the 140 ppb claimed is below the EPA’s acute concentration of 210 ppb of lead in salt water,” Communications Manager Josh Morgan wrote in a Thursday e-mail to NancyOnNorwalk.

Buck Scientific General Manager Eric Anderson, in a Feb. 21 company blog post, said the company had used an Atomic absorption spectrophotometer equipped with a Graphite furnace to test the Norwalk River upstream and downstream from the Walk Bridge to get a baseline of the metal concentrations. 

“What we found so far is not good: 40 PPB (parts per billion) concentration of Lead were detected in the river water,” he wrote. “By comparison, Flint Michigan, the poster child for lead contamination, had levels of 27 PPB in 90 percent of homes and levels as high as 127 PPB in some homes, according to the Washington Post.”

NancyOnNorwalk re-published Anderson’s blog post Wednesday. He had expressed concern about the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s planned reconstruction of the Walk Bridge and its possible interaction with “the river’s troubled environmental past.”

Mayor’s Water Quality Committee  Chairman Joe Schnierlein wrote in an email to Mayor Harry Rilling that he had contacted Anderson and learned that the lead levels were actually found to be 140PPB. Schnierlein said this could be “very damaging” to marine life.

Morgan on Wednesday forwarded NancyOnNorwalk emails between Schnierlein and Norwalk Senior Environmental Officer Alexis Cherichetti.

“A chemist working at Buck Scientific did some unsolicited water analysis of the Norwalk River water just to the south of the Walk Bridge, and to the north of the Walk Bridge.  In December, he found no lead in the water.  However, in January and February he found high levels of lead,” Schnierlein wrote, initially to Mayor Harry Rilling.

The lead levels were actually 140 PPB and, “may be a product of DOT driving piles into the sediments and doing some installation work,” Schnierlein wrote in the Wednesday email. “And, this may be a momentary thing.  If it is, there is nothing we can do now.  But in the future we need to insist on them installing turbidity curtains around all the work.”

“Buck makes the equipment to work in a lab as analytical equipment,” Schnierlein continued. “However, Buck does not have certification as a testing facility.  I have contacted Buck to get more information and the chemist told me he followed EPA protocols for doing the testing, but did not have an EPA approved QAPP {Quality Assurance Project Plan}.  When I read his data, and shared it with Dick Harris, we both agreed that from the time of collection to the time of testing seemed to be a long times – about 1 month.  Usually, in the scientific community, there is a push to do the testing ASAP after sample collection.”

Harris has ordered material to do follow-up testing in a certified lab, quickly, which will be paid for by Norm Bloom.  “If levels of lead exceed 14 ppb, yet along {cq} 140 ppb, it could be very damaging to marine life in the harbor.  Ironically, what you grew up with as a kid on the harbor may be severally impacted.  The mummichogs and killifish are very sensitive to even low levels of lead, and they are normally tough little fish.  Silversides, which are normally sensitive fish, can handle high levels of lead – and they are not tough little fish and die quickly,” Schnierlein wrote.  He believes Buck Scientific might be a great partner.

“Let’s see what the testing shows and then develop whatever actions would be needed based on those results,” Rilling replied, copying Cherichetti.

Cherichetti replied:

“Future testing should be at a frequency and duration that allows for comparison to established aquatic life water quality criteria for lead concentrations by EPA.  This chemist’s alternating between non-detection (0) and 140ppb could be due to too many variables.   Did he sample multiple times in January and February?   Lack of a QAPP and time between sampling and testing makes it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions regarding impact and cause.

“The EPA has established acute (CMC) concentration criterion (average concentration during 1 hour) of 210 ppb in salt water and chronic (CCC) concentration criterion (average concentration during 96 hours/4 days) of 8.1 ppb for aquatic life.”


Previous testing was “not of the water but of sediments,” Schnierlein wrote back.

“We have not been given a budget, yet in order to do what you propose would require an expenditure of fund.  There were not multiple samples to the best of my knowledge,” he wrote. “Can your department fund the establishment of a testing program?”

Cherichetti replied:


“Unless, someone has their units wrong, I have absolutely zero concerns about 140 ppb (parts per billion) of lead in sediment.   As a point of comparison, EPA’s standard for lead in bare soil in play areas is 400 ppm (parts per million)  – that is 400,000 ppb (parts per billion).   140ppb is an incredibly low concentration of lead in urban river sediment; 10-50 ppm (10,000-50,000 ppb) are concentrations of lead that typically occur in the soil naturally.   Even if this guy has his units wrong and it is 140 ppm (per million), that is well below any action criteria of the state or EPA.   For example, the residential remediation standard for lead in soil is 400 ppm.

“So, no my department does not have funding for testing.  But it it did, I would not use it on this.    The good news is I see no evidence of a lead contamination situation.”


NoN wrote back to Morgan, explaining that Anderson had said the water had 40 PPB, not the sediment. Morgan on Thursday replied:

“First, we want to be clear that the comparison between the water crisis in Flint and lead levels in the Harbor is outrageous. The EPA sets different acceptable lead levels for drinking water, fresh water, and salt water. For salt water, the 140 ppb claimed is below the EPA’s acute concentration of 210 ppb of lead in salt water. Sediment can have naturally occurring levels of lead in the range of 10,000-50,000 ppb. When sediment is disturbed it could impact the reported levels in the water at that moment in time. However, lead is heavy and sinks back down into the sediment relatively quickly. Without knowing what, if any, quality assurance measures were taken regarding the obtainment and testing of the samples, it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions from the data. But again, even if the number of 140 ppb is correct, it is still below the EPA’s recommended water quality criteria  for concentration of lead in salt water.”


Tim March 1, 2019 at 6:23 am

I suspect the Lead is from when DOT had the bridge painted. They sand blasted the old paint without any containment. The old paint had high concentrations of Lead. it fell into the river. When people complained, they put up a tarp along the work area but no containment below. If it hadn’t been a State job people would have gone to jail.
I happen to be a licensed Lead Paint Inspector/Risk Assessor, Lead Abatement Supervisor and a lead Abatement Plan Designer. There is no comparison between Lead levels in soil and water. The 15ppb is for drinking water. However, all those numbers above show that there certainly is a Lead hazard in the water, Check the sediment under the bridges and I bet the numbers will be off the charts.
All the shellfish that feed near the bridges absorb some Lead. Fish that eat the shellfish absorb the Lead. As people, we are on the higher part of the food chain. Guess what? If you eat those fish and shellfish you are consuming high concentrations of Lead. Just like the PCBs and Stripers in the NY rivers.

M Murray March 1, 2019 at 6:36 am

Seawater contains trace amounts of lead (2-30 ppt). On average rivers contain between 3 and 30 ppb. Phytoplankton contains approximately 5-10 ppm lead (dry mass), freshwater fish approximately 0.5-1000 ppb, and oyster approximately 500 ppb
The CDC reccommends drinking water contain no more than 15ppb. To compare river water in Norwalk to drinking water in homes in Flint is ridiculous.

Bryan Meek March 1, 2019 at 7:51 am

To compare Norwalk Harbor to a navigable federal waterway is what is ridiculous. So is spending $1 billion on a 250 foot span for 150 year old technology in the dawn of driverless cars.

Piberman March 1, 2019 at 8:03 am

Monies spent studying the weeds on Manresa Island might be better spent studying City water quality. Imagine what happens when the billion dollar Boondoggle Bridge favored by City officials gets underway. Everyone eating local shellfish will get a “minerals bonus”. Here’s a project for our City “Chiefs” to explore.

Kevin Kane March 1, 2019 at 9:04 am

I am not a lead expert or ready to draw conclusions on the lead levels. I am also not an expert on email etiquette but wow…….this one jumps out at me and is insane:
Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan on Wednesday forwarded NancyOnNorwalk emails between Schnierlein and Norwalk Senior Environmental Officer Alexis Cherichetti.

I am all for transparency but WTF is a person hired and paid to manage communications FORWARDING INTERNAL EMAILS on such a delicate subject?!! Holy email procedure and etiquette fail!

Why is is that there are always sub-stories to a feature topic or issue in Norwalk? First this is what appears to be a significant lead in the water issue but perhaps worse, the sub-story is a complete failure of email standards and procedures?!

Kudos to Nancy for pulling this off but boy do I hope Mr. Morgan is in the Mayors office getting a talking to.

Susan Wallerstein March 2, 2019 at 8:38 am

@ Kevin Kane. Freedom of Information laws not etiquette or procedure probably factor here.

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