NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk is working on a facilities plan for its wastewater treatment plant, as required under a consent order with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), signed by Mayor Harry Rilling in May.
It’s possible that the bill for this will be steep – in what Supervising Environmental Engineer Ralph Kolb called a “placeholder,” the Water Pollution Control Authority inserted $25 million over four years into the capital budget, beginning next year. That’s a projection, not an obligation for the City to bond the money.
Lone Common Council Republican Bryan Meek, appointed to represent District D, said Tuesday that it will be at least $50 million. Possibly $100 million.
Chief of Operations and Public Works Vanessa Valadares said the City and WPCA are “still finalizing” the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) facility update plan and “do not have a final cost yet.”
The consent order evolved from the City’s 2020 application to renew its wastewater treatment plant permit under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), documents provided by DEEP show.
A previous NancyOnNorwalk story incorrectly identified the cost of meeting the consent order’s requirements as $16.6 million over the next five years. That investment goes toward the sanitary sewer collection system and the wastewater treatment plant is a separate issue.
The order required Norwalk to submit its updated collection system master plan to DEEP by Sept. 30, resulting in the forecast of $16.6 million over five years and an additional $36.4 million over two decades.
A facilities plan update is due June 30 and engineering firm Arcadis was hired to do the work, DEEP’s consent order states. At the December WPCA meeting, Kolb said the $25 million in the capital budget is a placeholder and the refined numbers will be available in late June.
In January, Kolb told the Planning and Zoning Commission that the facilities plan will have “multiple recommendations” to improve the treatment plant.
“One of the things that we do look at is the 100-year flood elevation. We look at future capacity. We’re working with the Planning and Zoning team to incorporate future developments. And, like I said, that will be finalized later this year,” he said.
In response to a question, he clarified that he wasn’t talking about a 100-year storm, but the 100-year flood zone. The plant treats sewerage, not drainage water, he said.
“I know that it’s very confusing. What happened is that sometimes when we have a major storm, a little bit of this runoff ended up in our collection system,” Valadares said.
On Tuesday, Meek spoke of both the investments needed in the collection system and the upgrades being planned for the treatment plant.
“We know about 50 million right now over the next 5 years,” Meek wrote. “That is just for the problems with the collection system that is under designed for all the apartments we’ve been adding. And they are still putting a plan together to fix the treatment plant itself which I’m told is going to be in the ballpark of another 50 million.”
“The cost to upgrade the collection system over the next five years is $16.6 million, not $50 million, as Mr. Meek has alleged,” Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews said Thursday.
Consultants from Brown and Caldwell announced that estimate at the September WPCA meeting. The capital budget approved Tuesday includes $10.8 million for WPCA. In December, Kolb said that was both for consent order items and long-term infrastructure improvements.
Woods Matthews pointed out that the “costs are paid for through user fees and not through taxes.”
Norwalk’s capital budget usually includes WPCA projects. The City borrows money at the best rates available given its Triple A bond rating and WPCA makes payments on the loans.
In September, Valadares explained, “The WPCA is an enterprise fund, meaning that its costs and obligations are met through user fees which have remained consistent over time. In addition to a strong capital reserve, the WPCA recently developed a financial forecasting tool to assist with appropriately planning for infrastructure upgrades.”
In addition, the expected treatment plant upgrades “are unrelated to any recent apartment construction in Norwalk,” Norwalk Director of Communications Michelle Woods Matthews said Thursday.
“The notion that the two subjects are connected is false and misleading,” Woods Matthews said. “As currently designed, the wastewater treatment facility has a maximum flow capacity of 18 million gallons per day. As of February 2023, the 180-day average daily flow was approximately 12-million gallons per day, well below the 18 million gallon maximum and the 16-million-gallon threshold included in its state operating permit.”
This is something officials have said in multiple City public meetings.
“For additional background, the 180-day average daily flow has decreased as a result of the targeted collection system enhancement projects implemented by the City and WPCA in recent years. Monthly flow data is provided regularly in the WPCA’s Board Agenda,” Woods Matthews said.
“The Consent Order and facility enhancements are part of the City’s and WPCA’s ongoing efforts to enhance vital infrastructure to ensure continued success and the highest level of safety for the City and its citizens. The WPCA has been and continues to be a careful and active steward of local environmental resources. Just as in the past, the WPCA will continue its dedication to developing and maintaining infrastructure that enhances water quality across all aspects of its operations, including in the Norwalk River and Long Island Sound.”
Woods Matthews added that WPCA “was already addressing” many of the enhancements required in the consent order.
In September, Mat Todaro, an environmental attorney and a partner at Verrill Law Firm, said WPCA had already been planning to update its collection system master plan. DEEP renewed the permit “with terms that were substantially similar to the prior permit” but responded to public concerns with the consent order, according to Todaro.
WPCA has worked with the City and outside consultants to develop a “dynamic financial model to forecast and plan for costs associated with capital improvement projects, including those related to the Consent Order,” Woods Matthews said Thursday. Once DEEP has approved the facilities plan that will be submitted in June, the enhancements will be implemented over a decade.
“Currently, the WPCA’s dynamic financial model and its capital budget include placeholders for the cost of facility enhancements until estimates are developed,” Woods Matthews said. “The placeholder for facility enhancements is $50 million over ten years, and the placeholder for the capital budget is $25 million over five years. Costs related to the Facility Plan have been discussed in detail with relevant City personnel, the WPCA Board and the public.”
The collection system is comprised of about 200 miles of pipe, 22 pump stations and more than 6,000 manholes, divided into two segments because of the Norwalk River, the consent order states.
The segments connect in a siphon on Moody’s Lane and another siphon on Ann Street, the consent order states. DEEP ordered the Ann Street siphon to be eliminated from the system as it was discharging raw sewage into the river during emergencies, due to an equipment failure.
The treatment plant has a design flow of 18 million gallons per day (MGD) and a secondary treatment capacity of 30 MGD, it states.
The order details treatment that flows over 30 MGD are required to receive but explains that in 2017, four aged microscreens at the plant failed and as of May 17, 2017, untreated or inadequately treated sewage was being sent into the Norwalk River during heavy rainstorms.
An attachment shows that this happened twice in 2017, eight times in 2018 and five times in 2019. The accounting stopped in 2020, with only one incident reported that year.