Activists call out DEEP over response to oil spill

A film of oil sits on the surface of water in the Naugatuck River at the Naugatuck River access on Platt Street in Waterbury. The oil is from a spill from Somers Thin Strip Co. on Piedmont Street in Waterbury. -JIM SHANNON/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

WATERBURY — Six days after an industrial spill in Waterbury, an oily sheen could be seen along the banks of the Naugatuck River as far south as Derby, where it empties into the Housatonic River.

It’s a distance of about 15 miles.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection continues to investigate a Jan. 20 spill into the Naugatuck River, as does the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A broken ball valve on an exterior holding tank at Somers Thin Strip on Piedmont Street allowed somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 gallons of mineral oil to leak across the grounds. Much of the oil found its way into a storm drain feeding directly into the river.

Environmental activists are calling for a more robust response, while state officials assure the incident is being treated seriously. Naugatuck River Revival Group founder Kevin Zak is questioning the information given to firefighters who responded to the first alarm.

Somers staff initially estimated about 100 gallons had spilled. That was revised upward after oil was found spreading across the nearby river.

“I’m concerned they are not straightforward and were worried about fixing the leak before they called anyone,” Zak said.

Somers insists it acted appropriately, contacting emergency officials and hiring an environmental company to contain damage.

The company specializes in metals bonding and ultrathin metals for use across a wide range of industries.

Around 1:50 p.m. on Jan. 20, staff noticed a loss of oil pressure and began to search for the cause, according to an initial report Somers parent company, Global Brass and Copper Inc., submitted to DEEP.

“Facility personnel timely implemented spill responses,” including calling local emergency responders and state and national environmental officials, according to the Global report.

Firefighters were dispatched at 2:52 p.m., according to Fire Chief David Martin and dispatch reports. Martin said the leak had been repaired by the time firefighters arrived.

Firefighters spread sandlike absorbent material, and put a long, tubular boom around the closest storm drain to prevent oil from entering the drain. Martin said the storm drain was inspected and it appeared oil had entered, but hadn’t overflowed, a basin in the drain fed into an outflow pipe.

Martin said Somers staff told firefighters the sewer fed into a water treatment facility on the grounds.

“We figured we got it,” Martin said. “Based upon the initial report and what we saw, it made sense.”

Zak said his wife, Sondra, was alerted to an oil slick spreading across the river on Facebook. After seeing the problem for herself, she called the Naugatuck Fire Department.

DEEP staff then determined the drain actually fed into the river, Martin said.

Firefighters were called to meet DEEP staff at the drain’s outflow along South Main Street at 5:13 p.m. They placed a boom across a lagoon extending from the outflow pipe, and they threw oil-absorbing pads into the water.

Global’s report to DEEP said it stopped any leak into the storm sewer as of 6:30 p.m.

Clean Harbors spread additional oil-stopping booms across the river in several downstream points.

Local officials and state officials have tightly focused their attention on the Naugatuck River following a spill of 5 million gallons of raw sewage from Waterbury’s treatment plant on Oct. 9. It killed hundreds of fish, at least, and sparked an ongoing investigation.

The sewage spill helped focus attention on persistent sewage overflows around Connecticut, and a state law that fails to live up to its mission of informing the public. Some state lawmakers have taken notice and have pledged to attempt improvements in the coming legislative session.

DEEP staff have visited points along the river every day since the spill, and haven’t seen any impacts to fish or wildlife, DEEP spokesman Chris Collibee said last Friday.

Zak patrolled various points along the river last Friday afternoon. There were ducks and geese on the river. He didn’t turn up any dead fish or birds, but that doesn’t rule out damage, he said.

Chemicals falling out of the oil could harm eggs in the spring, or cause long-term harm to fish and wildlife without immediately killing them, Zak said.

“There’s a lot of invisible damage that can occur,” Connecticut Fund for the Environment Soundkeeper Bill Lucey agreed. “For DEEP to say: ‘We haven’t seen any damage from this. There’s no impact to wildlife,’ I don’t think that’s a true statement.”

Lucey said his group is going to pay close attention to the investigation.

“We are hoping DEEP does the work to make sure people are held responsible,” Lucey said. “I know accidents happen, but they happen less when people are held accountable.”

Lucey said he wants to know why more oil-stopping booms weren’t deployed earlier. He thinks DEEP needs to acknowledge dwindling capabilities brought on by a decline in staff. He’s also worried state officials have downplayed the seriousness of the spill.

“The thing that is irritating, is if you don’t have the capacity to do a good job, don’t try to cover up with a dismissive statement that doesn’t reflect the potential true impact,” Lucey said.

Collibee insists DEEP has been vigilant.

After Zak raised concerns of oil going over the Kinneytown Dam in Seymour, DEEP staff had the environmental contractor hired by Somers place oil-collecting booms there.

“We are listening to feedback from the public,” Collibee said.

DEEP staff have closely monitored the cleanup at the Somers plant to ensure it’s done correctly, Collibee said. Additionally, the department planned to took samples at various points downstream this week to determine if there have been impacts to water quality, Collibee said.

“And if there are, we will take further action,” he said.

Lucey said he plans to investigate the state’s procedures for responding to river spills.

Zak would like to see pollutant-stopping booms and small boats placed in storage at strategic points along the river. The theory is they’ll be deployed more quickly in the event of future spills.

Rivers Alliance of Connecticut Executive Director Margaret Miner said the extent of the latest spill makes plain the need for better protective measures.

Miner wants the state to consider additional regulation and oversight.

“Accidents will happen, but we are having too many predictable accidents with obviously inadequate response,” Miner said. “This river deserves better. I’m hoping we can draw lessons from this and come up with recommendations.”