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Norwalk sewage treatment plant overflows prompt legal pressure

Norwalk’s sewage treatment plant. (Archive photo)

Updated, 12:34 p.m.: Comment from Anthony Carr.

NORWALK, Conn. – There have been too many sewage overflows at the Norwalk wastewater treatment plant, said a lawyer for an environmental group that has sued other municipalities over water quality concerns.

Mayor’s Water Quality Committee member Dick Harris said the group, Save the Sound, is going to sue Norwalk.

Save the Sound “showed up” at a recent meeting, with two lawyers to “break chops about the number of bypasses, etc. that the plant was experiencing over time,” Harris said last week.

Republican State Rep. candidate John Flynn, whose father is on the Water Pollution Control Authority, recently said Save the Sound is suing the “water commission.”

No lawsuit has been filed, Save the Sound Director of Communications Laura McMillan said on Sept. 24.

It’s true that Save the Sound is “engaged in talks” with Norwalk as part of its Campaign for a Sewage-Free Long Island Sound, Roger Reynolds, attorney for Save the Sound, said Wednesday.

The Campaign for a Sewage-Free Long Island Sound has resulted in a lawsuit against Westchester County and another one against Danbury.

“We’re having ongoing conversations with municipalities on what we perceive as the problems and what we can do in a collaborative cooperative way to address them,” he said. “These are violating the Clean Water Act. So the law does come into play sometimes, but not all the time. And in the case of Norwalk, there has not been a lawsuit filed at this time. We are concerned they do have a large number of sanitary sewer overflows, 55-65, and they consistently show up as having a large number over time.”

Reynolds said that in 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Norwalk to reduce the number of wastewater treatment plant bypasses. There have been 55 bypasses since 2015 and 31 of them came after that order, he said.

EPA also issued an order in 2010, he said.

NancyOnNorwalk’s research shows that treatment plant bypasses include:

  • March 2, 2018: 1.86 million gallons of disinfected partially treated raw sewage were released; it was raining one to two inches an hour
  • Sept. 6, 2018:  380,000 gallons of disinfected partially treated raw sewage were released; it was raining one to two inches an hour,
  • Sept. 25, 2018: More than 1 million gallons of raw sewage were released; it was raining two to three inches an hour. (This entry has a note: “5.74 inches of rain in 24 hours caused flooding and abnormal high flows around the city and treatment plant.  The capacity of the headwords building was exceeded which caused grit tanks to overflow”)
  • June 28, 2018: 2.1 million gallons of disinfected partially treated raw sewage were released; it was raining three to four inches an hour
  • July 22, 2019: 110,000 gallons of disinfected partially treated raw sewage were released; it was raining less than an inch an hour, a total 1.55 inches of rain.
  • Aug. 19, 2019: Between 500,000 and 1 million gallons were released; it was raining one to two inches an hour.
  • Oct. 27, 2019: More than 1 million gallons of disinfected partially treated raw sewage were released; it was raining one to two inches an hour.

 

Harris alleged that Save the Sound has motives other than water quality concerns.

“They’re going to bring a suit against Norwalk’s sewage treatment plant,” he said. “They’ve already sued the town of Danbury… this is a little game to swell their coffers, they just go around, plant to plant, and find out who isn’t meeting the criteria and bring the axe down.”

“We periodically review sewage overflows, and then engage in conversations with the municipalities who are the worst offenders over time,” Reynolds said.

Norwalk Chief of Operations and Public Works Anthony Robert Carr on Wednesday said Norwalk would study Save the Sounds’ concerns and provide a response in the near future.

On Friday, he released this statement:

“To provide Save the Sound with greater context, the City and WPCA have been discussing the systematic, risk-based approach it uses to identify and address areas within its collection system that may require upgrading or rehabilitation, when necessary.

“This approach is highly cost-effective, in alignment with local water quality experts, and furthers the critical goal of achieving the greatest environmental benefit for the Norwalk River and Long Island Sound.

“The City and WPCA also continue its cooperative work with EPA under its Consent Order which furthers the collection system approach described above and gives EPA authority over these areas.”

 

Carr became DPW’s chief just over a year and a half ago. In May, Suez Water Environmental Inc. took over the Norwalk wastewater treatment plant operations, ending OMI Inc. 20-year tenure at the facility. Suez has a 10-year contract with the possibility of two five-year renewals.

 

A history of lawsuits

Save the Sound sued 11 Westchester towns in 2015.

“The sewer lines that run under streets and lawns in Westchester County shoreline municipalities have been leaking raw sewage into waterways for decades, causing low oxygen, high bacteria levels, and long-term harm to Long Island Sound,” the organization states on its website.

“In summer 2017, we reached settlements with the Villages of Mamaroneck and Port Chester to repair their systems to stop the overflows by 2019,” it states. “The County of Westchester and nine other municipalities have not agreed to fix their systems in a timely manner, so our lawsuits are still pending against them. While we hope to settle the matter cooperatively, we will litigate if necessary to finally stop these raw sewage discharges.”

Danbury was sued in 2016 after Save the Sound and other environmentalist groups studied public records and found “raw and partially treated sewage had been discharged into Limekiln Brook and the Still River repeatedly over five years, eventually dumping into Long Island Sound,” the website states.

“A proposed consent decree for the City of Danbury has been signed by Danbury and CFE/Save the Sound and approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and EPA. It requires Danbury to (1) pay a $100,000 civil penalty, (2) properly operate and maintain its sewage collection system to stop the overflows, and (3) pay the costs of litigation,” it states.

 

‘Not helping the matter’

The discussions with Norwalk are separate from the unified water study that produced the Long Island Sound Report Card, released Tuesday, Reynolds said.

He said, “We want to see that that harbor cleaned up and sewage overflows are certainly not helping the matter, but the discussions we have with Norwalk have no relation to our findings, those are completely independent.”

The Norwalk Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) is working to renew its wastewater treatment plant permit under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

The WPCA recently retained an outside law firm, Verrill Dana, to provide legal services related to Save the Sound.

Norwalk Communications Manager Josh Morgan said, “The City typically looks into retaining outside counsel when it requires specific expertise on certain matters.”

11 comments

NiZ October 9, 2020 at 9:29 am

Clean, safe water is vital to LIFE all forms. As our physical well being is essential, not optional or up for a debate. No one should ever assume to say any different. ANY who down play it, or try to justify it with EXCUSES is showing us all what sewage they are about.

John Levin October 9, 2020 at 9:41 am

Query: are there any towns other than Wilton that use Norwalk’s sewage treatment plant?

It seems unfortunate that a private non-profit environmental activist group like Save The Sound is needed to enforce existing laws through legal action rather than voluntary compliance by municipalities, or enforcement through federal EPA or state DEEP.

2nd query: approximately how many Norwalk residentces and businesses do not yet have access to Norwalk’s sewage system?

john j flynn October 9, 2020 at 10:04 am

They want $80 million to settle. There are 3 berried heavy metal cells berried under the Walk Bridge, not to mention the caped leaching Oyster Shell Park, Bob Duff’s Duffy Park aka Veteran’s Park fined for dumping known hazardous waste into the river because they knew the river was already polluted. This still does not address Washington Village, Ryan Park, the Ice factory, NEON, Meadow and Woodward Streets, Deering Wellfield, king Industries, the hospital is dumping, Ridgefield has a permit to dump and the list goes on and on. 600 municipalities and Clubs dump off the harbor, Harbor View never had their dredging tested, Himes is a disaster. When Washington Village was demolished they pumped PCBs right into the sewer main. They filled the storm drains with crushed cement and those drains caused flooding of PCBs. Tell me how you can possible remove crushed cement with heavy metals from the storm drain system under Water Street? 285 people are sick during a pandemic. Not a single elected official can fix these problems and not one even attempts to address it. “We have a cancer cluster caused by the Norwalk Health and Safety Commission”, Erin Brockovitch and the Judges are in on it.

Jessica October 9, 2020 at 10:19 am

I’m very happy to read that something will be done about the raw sewage leaks. Norwalk is very bad. My neighbor was leaking raw sewage out onto the street and our property. She had her rain over flow line hooked up to her raw sewage line that ran onto our property illegally. (We had no idea of this when we bought the house, it was not on record with the building department. When we asked about the pipe she was not honest with us about what the pipe was). When my husband reported it, the health department came out to test the leak to make sure it was raw sewage. It tested positive. They then said there was nothing they could do about it since its her private property. I could not believe this is how the City of Norwalk handled raw sewage leaks. My neighbor fixed her sewer line. Not because she cared about the leak, but because it was effecting her plumbing. I am sure if residents were aware that they were walking through raw sewage on the sidewalk they wouldn’t be too happy.

Shari Brennan October 9, 2020 at 10:59 am

Yes. SUE! I will sign any petition. This should not be happening to one of our most environmental resources

Makes sense October 9, 2020 at 12:46 pm

Without independent watch dogs like Save The Sound, RiverKeeper etc… industry and public utilities would dump 100% of their waste into our waterways.

We are lucky to have them fighting for us. Just 1 sewage bypass into the LI Sound should trigger massive action.

Goodness, we are not a 3rd world country! Ever seen Norwalk Harbor in the Summer? Children swimming, people fishing etc… I wonder if people knew that the sewage pipe is right next to the town dock. Its like Bangledesh!

Our treatment plant should be able to handle 50″ of rain. A 1000 year storm with massive rainfall. Anything short of that is pitiful.

Claire Schoen October 9, 2020 at 1:48 pm

Thanks, Nancy, for bringing this to our attention. As a rower who spends a lot of time on the Upper Harbor, I’ve seen plenty of questionable material on the surface of the river, all the way out to the mouth of the harbor.
In addition to spills from our own treatment plant, it’s worth noting that our neighbors upstream might also be held accountable, as runoff from Wilton and Ridgefield makes its way down to us.
The Norwalk River is a vital part of our community, let’s figure out how to keep it clean –

David T McCarthy October 9, 2020 at 2:30 pm

Nancy, you have a typo, it is headworks, not headwords.

I served on the WPCA with John Flynn and he is a knowledgeable engineer. I neither understand, or quite frankly, believe any of the things posted by his son.

This was an exceedingly rare occurrence in the years before 2015, if that has changed (and I have no reason to disbelieve Nancy here) it is a very serious issue. It needs to be addressed immediately. I know from both ends of what I speak…Google Fort Lauderdale sewage line rupture and know that this occurred on my street.

This affects the beaches, the ecology and all of your lives…do not let political dealing take funding away from the effort to fix this. I don’t believe that these amounts of rain would cause this. I was fully set to dismiss Save the Sound, who has been quite aggressive in filing these suits, but this article changed my mind…something is rotten in Denmark

1200 Apartments October 10, 2020 at 9:37 am

The Common Council just voted to proceed with adding up to 1200 new apartments between Wells Fargo and I-95 along East Avenue. When ENO residents pushed back for a variety of reasons including sewage and water concerns, we were told repeatedly that Norwalk has more than enough capacity to accommodate a lot of growth, even as the sewage plant overflows to close down beaches and we are currently in a drought. Common sense dictates it cannot handle what we’ve got, never mind the strains of additional growth (not to mention the strains on traffic, schools, police…). It is infuriating.

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