Naugatuck River rebounding year after spill

Kevin Zak, the founder of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, sits and looks over the Naugatuck River in Waterbury on Thursday, the one year anniversary of a 5 million gallon sewage spill into the river. -BILL SHETTLE/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — After a massive sewage spill last October, Naugatuck River Revival Group founder Kevin Zak and his wife pulled on wading boots and headed into the river.

The river was low and barely moving after a dry spell. Clumps of bleached sewage floated in pools and lay on rocks. Zak found hundreds of dead fish, and then hundreds more.

It was a blow to an advocate who’d spent more than a decade promoting and cleaning the river. He’d returned again and again to pull out tires, shopping carts and trash off all descriptions. In 2016, Zak put on a tuxedo and exchanged vows with his new wife while standing in the river. It’s that much a focus of his life.

“It was devastating,” Zak said about the spill. “It was surreal. We didn’t see any tiny fish or bugs or anything. The entire area was dead. It was just a dead zone for a mile.”

A year later, Zak’s devastation has turned to gratitude for the response to the spill on the part of state and local leaders.

The city adopted procedures to alert the public and media of spills. It performed a large summertime cleanup and hired a private company to better run its sewage plant.

Additionally, the disaster prompted state lawmakers from Waterbury to push for improvements to a state law providing the public with information on sewage spills.

“You know, when life hands you lemons …” Zak said.

On Oct. 9, 2017, a contractor working on an upgrade to the plant cut the wrong high-voltage wire, almost frying himself and bringing down power to the plant. It was Columbus Day. There was no management at the plant. In the hours it took to restore power, untreated sewage backed up and began to flow from a manhole. Workers were forced to shunt 5 million gallons of untreated sewage directly into the river.

The disaster exposed the fragility of the plant and the inadequacy of its emergency protocols. Nobody alerted the general public until The Republican-American learned of it and published a story eight days later. Even Mayor Neil O’Leary had not been informed of the magnitude of the spill.

Under an agreement with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, city officials paid an environmental company to clean litter and sewage along the river banks. It also agreed to a new system of broadcasting future spills to the public and news outlets. The city stocked 1,500 trout this spring and hosted a fishing derby.

O’Leary, on his own initiative, recruited Zak to help lead the “River Brigade,” a paid cleanup crew of 13 teens on summer break. Over six weeks, they pulled out tons of garbage, furniture and metal from the river. Industrial Riggers volunteered its services to help pull out an enormous metal rail and engine block that had long stymied Zak.

The summer program cost nearly $50,000. This was covered by the Waterbury Environmental Health Fund, the city’s two hospitals and the Borough of Naugatuck.

At the urging of state Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-75th District, and environmental activists, state lawmakers upgraded training and reporting requirements for Connecticut sewage treatment operators. Beginning July 1, they’re required to file electronic reports of sewage spills. These are uploaded automatically onto a publicly accessible database on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website.

The law also requires sewage treatment plant operators report spills to mayors and first selectmen in the towns they occur, as well as leaders of downstream towns.

“Granted this was an emergency situation, but it really raised awareness about the need for better communication with public officials and better coordination with the public,” said Denise Ruzicka, director of water planning and management for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“You hate to have an emergency situation to have good come out of it, but in this case there is good that came of this,” Ruzicka said.

On Sept. 10, the city hired CH2M Hill Engineers, a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering, to a $62.9 million contract to run the plant over the coming decade.

“I feel the plant is in a very good place and going to a better place,” O’Leary said. “Much more so than it was. Once the spill happened in the river, and the investigation revealed what it did, I had no confidence an incident like that could not happen again.”

“Now that I’ve learned as much as a layperson can about a waste management plant, I feel we are in very, very, good hands with Jacobs,” he added.

Zak said he feels the river has “almost” bounced back from the spill. This summer, he saw the return of hooded mergansers (a specie of small wild duck).

“After having been in the river intensely all summer with the kids, I feel really good about the river right now,” Zak said. “I think the right moves were made by the city. Instead of burying everything and hoping it went away, they grabbed it in a positive way.”