Updated, 4:49 a.m., Feb. 8: The fourth and fifth paragraphs of this story have been edited for clarification purposes. Also, levy changed to levee.
NORWALK, Conn. – A state environmental agency has renewed the permit for Norwalk’s sewage treatment plant, as predicted by city officials who sharply criticized a Norwalk citizen’s request for a hearing on the matter, decrying what they called an unnecessary expense.
“We’re going to get the permit because what’s the alternative? Closing the treatment plant and dumping raw sewage into Long Island Sound?” Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord said last week.
Alvord and Common Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) both expressed consternation in late November with Norwalk environmental activist Diane Lauricella, who obtained 36 signatures on a petition, forcing the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to hold a public hearing on the matter.
Lauricella said in December that McCarthy’s attitude toward the public was part of the reason the hearing was held – talking to the council’s Public Works Committee might have been an option, but she and others felt that was out of the question because McCarthy is the committee chairman, she said.
She had suggested the state hold a public information session instead of a hearing, she said.
Although the decision rendered by a DEEP adjudicator accepts expert testimony that the concerns expressed at the Dec. 2 public hearing were not germane to the permit’s parameters, Lauricella on Thursday night said, “Under tremendous odds, including holding the hearing the day after the Thanksgiving holiday in a remote, scary location (15 South Smith St.), bullying and implied threats during the last administration that frightened many individuals and officials into silence, we still exercised our right to request and speak at a public hearing about an important city system,” she wrote in an email.
By bullying, Lauricella was referring in part to an opinion piece written by McCarthy and published in The Hour.
McCarthy referred to the “irresponsible actions” of an activist that he did not name and wrote “… the city will now be forced to spend perhaps in excess of several hundred thousands of dollars to go through a series of legal hearings that will undoubtedly certify that the plant operates at the highest levels of efficiency and safety.”
Alvord said last week that the cost was not nearly that high.
“We’ve spent $25,000,” he said. “The DEEP has spent a similar amount of money.”
Lauricella’s late-night Thursday response: “The apparently false threat that the hearing proceedings would cost the city ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ in a cowardly, nasty Op-Ed by Council DPW Chair David McCarthy needs to be investigated, for it discouraged many from speaking up, including our other elected local and state officials. Actually, city staff chose not to negotiate with the petitioners to avoid a formal hearing when an offer to compromise was made in the early stages.”
McCarthy did not return a late night email giving him a chance to respond to that allegation.
Seven Norwalk citizens spoke at the December hearing in Norwalk. Concerns expressed included complaints about a smell coming from the plant on occasion, the procedures to notify the public in advance of a plant shutdown and the integrity of the levee around the plant, which has trees growing in it and groundhogs burrowing through it, according to Mike Mushak, an activist. That last item was important because the plant was close to flooding during Superstorm Sandy, said Mushak and Lauricella.
That hearing was followed by a hearing in Hartford. Anne Straut-Esden, a DEEP sanitary engineer, testified that odors are not regulated through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit process, meaning the smell is irrelevant to the permit, according to the decision (attached below) written by Hearing Officer Brendan Schain.
Straut-Esden and Norwalk DPW employee Ralph Kolb testified that the structural integrity of the levee is not regulated through the NPDES permit process, according to the decision. The emergency protocols are also not part of the NPDES permit process, Straut-Esden testified.
Alvord said last week that the trees would be easy to deal with – cut them down, he said.
“The levee is not what is protecting the plant from flooding,” he said. “The water comes up through the catch basins because water seeks its own level. The flooding that started in Superstorm Sandy – nothing was coming over the levee, we weren’t worried about water coming over the levee. The water was coming up the catch basins.”
Alvord said DEEP was ready to renew the city’s permit before Lauricella requested a hearing.
“This is not a DEEP-against-the-city kind of thing,” he said.
Lauricella is standing firm.
“We are still evaluating the CTDEEP Final Decision and the Draft NPDES Permit and will contact the petitioners shortly to discuss how we can implore the city and the CTDEEP to improve the operations of the sewage treatment plant now, not in years,” she wrote. “We stand by our heartfelt concerns and suggestions. Many local residents, business owners and visitors expressed valid concerns about the sludge odors, emergency notification process and flooding structures.”
She said the decision seems to violate NPDES standards.
“We respectfully disagree with the Hearing Officer’s findings and the fact that the CTDEEP Commissioner waived his authority to modify and add additional conditions to the permit,” she wrote. “This decision still seems to violate NPDES permit standards that state (from the actual Draft Final Decision wording):
“’the Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection shall examine all existing or proposed disposal systems, and shall compel their operation in a manner which shall conserve and protect the natural resources and environment of Connecticut and protect the public health, safety and welfare.” General Statutes § 22a-416. If conducted as proposed and in accordance with the terms and conditions of the draft permit, the regulated activities will not impair or damage natural resources or the environment or threaten public health, safety or welfare.’
“What is that still-present sludge odor doing for our public health, safety and welfare?” she asked.