Sewage spills faster than information flows

Fish were found dead in the Naugatuck River near the Polish American Club in Naugatuck Oct. 9. The fish were died due to sewage shunted from the Waterbury sewage treatment plant. –RA ARCHIVE

Nearly a month after millions of gallons of raw sewage from Waterbury’s sewage treatment plant was dumped into the Naugatuck River local leaders are left scratching their heads.

A prolonged power failure at the plant Oct. 9 forced workers to shunt about 5 million gallons of untreated sewage into the river to avoid flooding the plant. The spill killed many fish and went unreported to the public for a week. Town leaders down river weren’t notified either.

“The first time I found out what happened was when I read it in the newspaper. We never had any notice or complaint from [the Department of Environment and Energy Protection] or Waterbury,” Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said he wasn’t informed about the spill right away and, when he didn’t hear any information from the state, he assumed that there wasn’t much of a problem.

“I have to confess that when I heard about the spill and didn’t get any follow up I thought it was contained,” Bielik said.

Bielik said he did not understand the full impact of the spill have until he received an email from Kevin Zak, one of the founders of the Naugatuck River Revival Group.

“Considering the information that was contained in the email I think it would have been helpful for all towns to have gotten additional updated information about the magnitude of spill. We know 5 million gallons, but what does that means? What were the conditions in the water being experienced because of it,” Bielik said.

If the municipalities along the river had known the extent of what had happened, Bielik said they could have taken actions such as putting up warning signs at popular fishing locations.

Once he learned about the magnitude of the spill, Bielik said he tried to let as many residents as possible know by sending out a code red alert. He said the lack of notification could have put residents in harm’s way.

“It certainly is possible that it put people in danger. The number of recreational facilities we have that are used quite often, the vibrant fishing community we have, and the people who use the river for canoeing, and kayaking all put people in the river,” Bielik said.

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain told the Republican-American waste treatment plant operators are required to notify his agency, state officials and local health officials when untreated sewage is pumped into waterways.

“We rely on local health officials to determine the extent of any public health issues raised by the bypass and to take any appropriate action to notify the public,” Schain told the Republican-American.

Schain did not return a message left by the Citizen’s News seeking comment.

Naugatuck Valley Health District Assistant Director David Rogers previously said he was not made aware of the issue until a week after it had happened.

Waterbury had city workers along with hired contractors clean the river. The cleanup effort is got an assist from Mother Nature, which dumped several inches of rain in a short span Sunday night into Monday morning. The swollen river had grown tremendously in size and ferocity by Monday afternoon.

Waterbury leaders began investigating the matter and learned that the spill this month wasn’t the first major one of the year.

According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website, the city pumped between 500,000 to 1 million gallons of “raw sewage” into the river on April 16 due to “electrical equipment failure” at the plant.

On Sunday, there was another big flow of untreated sewage into the river, this time estimated at 283,000 gallons, due to a brief a power outage and the heavy volume of water entering the plant because of the heavy rainstorm Sunday.

Hess said last week he has put Zak in charge of finding the areas in the borough that need remediation and notifying Waterbury about them.

“I don’t know where this fell apart but there needs to be measures in place to make sure it won’t happen again,” Hess said.

Zak said the spill and the response to it was a step back of 100 years for the river, but he did not think it was helpful to point fingers.

Zak said he understands that the DEEP is understaffed and trying to deal with multiple issues at once.

“If you are given a shovel and it requires a backhoe, it’s not your fault. You are doing what you can do,” Zak said.

The main concern is what will happen moving forward if something like this happens again, Zak said.

“A lot of things can be learned and things can be prevented,” Zak said. “You can put in certain protocols for what to do when it happens. Right off the bat, put large signs and police tape over accesses to the river.”

Zak just hopes next time something of this magnitude occurs, the warnings will flow faster than the sewage.

“You can’t prevent accidents but you can help the information flow,” Zak said.

The Republican-American contributed to this article.