State could issue order for upgrades

NAUGATUCK — The borough may be on the verge of being disqualified for grant opportunities to help pay for upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant.

An official from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said last week that if Naugatuck does not find a way to pay for federally-mandated plant upgrades, the state could issue a consent order to force the borough to make the upgrades.

“If that happens, it could disqualify Naugatuck for money from the Clean Water Fund,” said Ann Straut, a senior sanitary engineer for DEEP. “If they voluntarily make the upgrades, then they can get the money.”

Volunteering to make upgrades, in the eyes of the DEEP, is when municipalities are told they are mandated to make improvements and then formulate a plan to do so. Several cities and towns across Connecticut, including Torrington and Derby, are under mandates to make their plants more environmentally friendly. Both of those municipalities approved millions of dollars in bonding money in November to comply with the mandate.

Naugatuck voters, however, rejected a request to bond the borough’s first round of upgrades. Voters were asked to approve $12 million for incinerator upgrades and pollution abatement projects, and installation of a filter to remove mercury from the incinerator output. That vote failed on Election Day by a vote of 3,394 to 4,039.

Straut said Naugatuck is the only municipality she knows of that has tried to bond money for this project and had taxpayers reject it. She said Naugatuck could face stiff penalties, including potential fines, if it falls behind on the project and does not get it completed on time.

Plus, the overall cost of the project already sits at $81 million, and the price likely will only increase as time goes on.

She said Naugatuck is behind already on part of the plan. It is late in submitting a plan for an ash lagoon that would stop ash from spreading into the environment.

Straut said DEEP is willing to work with Naugatuck — the agency does not plan to force Naugatuck to shut down the plant in the near future. However, the mandates come from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and DEEP only oversees them, so state officials say their hands are tied with how much leeway they can give municipalities. Getting the money in line is up to each municipality.

“We think Naugatuck and, frankly, other municipalities could have done a better job with public relations and telling residents why this is important,” she said.

About $30 million of the project is for phosphorous removal. The federal government is making wastewater treatment facilities reduce the amount of phosphorus they emit within the next five years.

Phosphorous is found in fertilizer, some laundry detergents and in dishwashing detergents. Too much phosphorous can trigger algae blooms, reducing the clarity of water. In extreme cases, this can lead to depletion of oxygen and fish kills, according to the DEEP.

Naugatuck must make upgrades to its incinerator for $5 million, repairs to its siphon system for $5 million and miscellaneous upgrades to its entire plant to meet new federal standards at a cost of about $15 million, Naugatuck Department of Public Works Director Jim Stewart said.

About $4 million would go toward sewer rehabilitation, he said. On top of that, there are additional fees of $1.3 million for a facilities plan and $6 million for a design plan, he said. The borough would have to set aside $19 million for contingencies.

In the unlikely case that Naugatuck has to shut down its plant, the borough would lose about $4 million a year from contracts it has with outside agencies, including municipalities, to treat their waste. Plus, it would have to find a way to treat its own waste and would probably be in breach of contract with Veolia, the company that operates the plant.

Despite Straut’s claim of poor public relations campaigning, Naugatuck officials did hold meetings and attempt to inform the public about this project, Stewart said. Fewer than 10 people attended meetings to discuss it.

Stewart said the DEEP has indicated it is willing to work with Naugatuck, and the borough is looking for an alternate funding source.

“We are supposed to send a letter to the commissioner of DEEP to explain our situation and then have a meeting,” he said. “I guess we will take it from there.”