NORWALK, Conn. – A Democrat-dominated public hearing held Monday night was as much about a public attack on a local activist as it was about reportedly offensive smells in East Norwalk and the possibility of sewage flooding into Long Island Sound during a storm surge.
The hearing on the renewal of the permit for Norwalk’s sewage treatment plant drew about 15 people to the Department of Public Works cafeteria on South Smith Street, where seven people spoke to Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection adjudicator Attorney Brendan Schain. They included a marina worker who said odors from the plant occasionally make him sick.
Last to speak was Diane Lauricella, who had been referred to as “irresponsible” and “without a degree or credentials” in an opinion piece written by Common Councilman David McCarthy (R-District E) and published on Nov. 19 in The Hour (Nov. 18 online).
Lauricella requested the hearing. “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,” McCarthy wrote.
First to speak was Water Pollution Control Authority board chairman Darren Oustafine.
“The presence of this hearing could be construed in my opinion as some form of deliberate malfeasance on the part of the WPCA. At worst, or at best, it kind of has the appearance that some sort of information was being withheld,” Oustafine said.
The chairman went on to say there were more people present for the hearing than are ever present for board meetings, that environmental information is included in all board agendas and that if anyone wanted to learn more they might attend a board meeting or read the information on the WPCA website.
Mike Mushak said he had toured the sewage treatment plant once and been “blown away” by the sophisticated process and that he “100 percent” supported the permit being renewed for the “fabulous asset to the city.” But there are trees growing on the revetment, as well as groundhogs burrowing there, he said. These types of things lead to levy breaches, he said.
Norwalk got less rain than other cities during Superstorm Sandy, he said, and yet the plant was nearly flooded by the combination of rainfall and the storm surge.
McCarthy’s opinion piece was “unfortunate” in that it “ridiculed” Lauricella, he said.
“This was a form of intimidation of the public and we don’t need that in Norwalk,” he said. “I think that is why there is a lot of the animosity in this room. … I think this hearing was done in good faith, not because anybody thought anybody did anything wrong, just like she felt like she needed a voice, a chance to speak, about what is a huge drain on taxpayers in Norwalk.”
Theresa “Missy” Conrad also defended Lauricella from what she called a “personal attack,” saying that, some years ago, Lauricella found a brownfield site that was poisoning wells in the First Taxing District.
“I know that Diane goes to so many meetings,” she said. “She isn’t somebody who went to school 20 years ago and never learned a thing since; she keeps up on it. I think she deserves more respect.”
Diane Cece said the hearing could have been filled with people praising the plant, but McCarthy had poisoned it.
Cece used to commute through East Norwalk, but the smell made her gag, she said. DPW Director Hal Alvord insults people’s intelligence when he says that the smells come from low tide, she said.
Scott Kimmich said he was there because he is a Norwalk citizen who buys oysters by the bushel. Climate change is upon us, he said.
“I know there is a smell situation, but I am far more worried about more frequent flooding and a surge that goes over the dike,” he said.
If he were in Alvord’s shoes he would welcome a hearing, he said.
Keith Brown said he is a managing member of SoNo Wharf, which he said was directly south of the plant.
“There is a serious problem of odor from this plant and it is not leaves and it is not low tide. It has actually caused me to leave my office at times because I felt ill,” he said.
On such occasions, he has been told by plant workers that a door was left open on a sludge building, he said.
“I don’t get a clear definition of what is going on. It is clearly a controlled situation because it happens a t certain times and it’s very present and it’s very noticeable and then it goes away,” he said.
He’s been told that there are trucks backing in, but when he gets to the plant workers say there have been no trucks, he said. It’s “more of a chemical odor, more something to do in the process,” he said.
There was a building designed to be liquid tank removal building but is now being used as a solid waste removal building, he said.
Alvord said after the meeting he couldn’t explain Brown’s problem.
“I don’t sit where Keith Brown sits,” he said. “I know Keith. I’ve not been in his office, I can’t tell you what is going on. Are there occasions when there are smells? Yes.”
That’s when the doors of the dewatering building are opened to take sludge out, even though there is a negative pressure system, a permanganate system and a new odor control system, he said.
“When you open the door you’re going to get some odor that leaves because that is the smelliest part of the whole system, in there,” he said. “So we’ve done everything we can to control that but when you take the trailer out and bring the new one in that’s going to happen. But its a short period each day and it’s generally, not always, around 6 a.m.”
Lauricella said she didn’t realize that the smell problem was so bad until she went around looking for people to sign a petition. She also provided Shain with copies of an article in The Hour informing people that they shouldn’t flush their toilets as Sandy approached.
“I am very concerned that this is considered emergency management communication,” she said.
She also handed him printouts of comments left on the Hour’s website that showed citizens are concerned, even though there are reportedly few complaints made to the city. She had photos of trees growing on the revetment and evidence of gopher holes there.
“If the water were to rise there might be a breech,” she said. “If we don’t talk about this then we can’t ask the council and others for grants and money to possibly harden this particular item.
“The new FEMA laws should be looked at and compared with the original design,” she said. “If we want to harden this revetment, or barrier, or dike, whatever you want to call it, we should start looking for that money now. There needs to be some kind of review.”
Shain let her speak for 12 minutes, although everyone had been told they had five. Lauricella said she would work with legislators to try to make the permit renewal process more friendly to the public, require that all governmental bodies related to water quality be consulted and that DEEP had the resources to do surprise inspections.
“I know what sewage smells like and I know what low tide smells like,” she said. “One reason why there aren’t more people (here) is that when people get discouraged when they are told it’s low tide or they don’t know they have an outlet, they give up.”
She requested a condition be put on the permit that would require a better notification system, with a neutral party for citizens to complain to.
That ended the meeting, which was the first part of the hearing. It will be continued in Hartford Wednesday. Citizens have until 5 p.m. Friday to file written comments.
Anyone looking for information can tour the plant, Alvord said. Tours are set up year round.
McCarthy said in a late-night email that he would have been at the hearing but was traveling for work.
He defended his opinion piece in The Hour.
“I am unaware of there having been any personal attacks made against Ms. Lauricella,” he wrote. “Pointing out that someone has used a mechanism intended for serious issues to cause a derailment of a state permitting process without any charges of impropriety whatsoever is pretty far from ‘personal.’ Not one word of what I wrote has been disputed.”
He continued, “While Ms. Lauricella has the right to free speech, she has a responsibility when her words cause damages. It is akin to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. In this case, there is only a monetary cost, but what would you be doing if I, or any other member of the public, cost the city this amount of money without so much as an accusation?”
McCarthy did not immediately respond to a request for a figure on how much money the hearing was costing the city.