Sewage plant’s neighbors threatening to sue

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NAUGATUCK — Residents of an east side neighborhood who have complained for nearly six years about putrid smells from the local wastewater treatment plant say they have grown tired of waiting for local and state agencies to fix the problem.

Joe Sheehy, who lives on Meadowbrook Place, a cul-de-sac with 11 upscale homes off Cross Street, says the smell from the plant on July 2 was the worst it has been in six years. He said it continued that way throughout the holiday weekend.

“We wanted to hold barbecues and be in our yards . . . but we couldn’t stand the smell,” he said. Sheehy and his neighbors compare the stench to that of garbage bags left out on a hot day. Instead of cookouts, they went to a restaurant across town for dinner.

Sheehy and his wife, Peg, have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the borough over the smell. They are not satisfied with how the borough, the state Department of Environmental Protection and Veolia Water North America—which operates the wastewater treatment plant under a long-term contract with Naugatuck—have responded to their complaints. The Sheehys said other Meadowbrook Place residents are considering joining them in a legal battle.

DEP officials say they have done everything they can to force upgrades at the treatment plant. Veolia was fined $2,600 last year by the DEP after the department’s odor inspectors discovered the odors were above a nuisance level.

DEP issued a consent order to Veolia demanding that it hire an environmental engineering firm to study the issue and come up with a plan to fix the odor problems.

Wright-Pierce Environmental Engineers of New England conducted a detailed analysis of the odor problems and issued a 133-page report that stated Veolia has taken significant steps to stop the stench. The report says air samples were taken in July and August of 2009—odor generation is typically at its highest in summer months—and showed ambient odor levels that were below what DEP considers a nuisance.

The report stated the plant could use about $800,000 worth of upgrades to make further improvements.

Group couldn’t force change

Joe Sheehy said DEP could do more to force upgrades to stop the smell.

“It would seem to me that if Veolia was fined, say $3,000 each and every time this smell happens, they would come up with a solution pretty quick,” he said.

“This is ridiculous. I doubt anyone in the state suffers as much as we do.”

Peg Sheehy started a neighborhood watch group last year called Residents Against Waste Smells, or RAWS. She, her neighbors and others in the community documented the times they smelled the odors, and the borough put a link on its website urging people to send e-mails when the smell was foul.

She said several people filed complaints, but the problem has continued.

She said the smell is bad in other areas of the borough, including on North Cherry Street, where the plant is located.

DEP monitoring the odors

Robert Girard, assistant director of air enforcement for DEP, said the department understands the complainants’ frustrations.

“I can certainly see where they are coming from,” he said. “And we’re committed to ensuring that this problem is corrected as soon as possible.”

He said that was the point of the consent order, and that Veolia negotiated the order in good faith with DEP.

Through that order, Veolia agreed to make the necessary upgrades to abate the odors.

“We monitor these situations closely, and we will make sure they are doing what they said they would,” he said. “If they don’t, there could be additional fines.”

He said there may be a good explanation of why the plant smelled so bad over the Fourth of July weekend.

The weekend was in the middle of a heat wave and humid air can make the smells worse.

Power outages also occurred around the state, and Veolia may not have had the treatment plant running on a continuous basis.

“By the very nature of the business, it’s a challenge to run those plants,” Girard said. “Even with the best laid plans in place, you will get a nuisance odor complaint.

That being said, we’ve dealt with these kind of situations before, and in the end, we’ve been effective at finding a solution.”

Costly upgrades

Mayor Robert A. Mezzo said Veolia has been open and honest about odor problems and how it is trying to fix them. He also said nobody is denying that the plant smells.

“The company has never denied access to the plant or to its records,” he said. “In my opinion, and I’m not a scientist, but even if close to $1 million gets invested into smell abatement, you’re never going to completely get rid of the smell based on the plant’s location and geography.”

He said the borough already faces mandates to lower mercury emissions and discharges of phosphates and zinc.

“Ultimately, we are going to have to make several improvements at the plant, based on additional unfunded mandates from the state.”