Monday, September 26, 2005

Connecticut's Sewage Spill Investigation

People in the audience raised their eyebrows yesterday when I mentioned that it's been almost five months since Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the state was investigating the 12-million-gallon sewage spill in New Haven in late April and early May.

As part of a talk I gave in Essex at the annual meeting of Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, I suggested that perhaps the reason the investigation has gone on for so long is that the sewage spill did not draw much attention to begin with, and the lack of concern and outrage allowed Blumenthal and the state to either put the investigation on the back burner or drop it all together.

The circumstances were these: The spill took place at the East Haven treatment plant over the weekend, beginning on April 30 and continuing for two or three days. Despite it being one of the biggest spills in years, the only news coverage it got was from Channel 8 (which aired stories on consecutive days) and the New Haven Register (which ran one story).

The Channel 8 story quoted Nick Crismale, a lobsterman and clammer who harvests clams on state-owned beds in the New Haven area:

"The landlord here is the State of Connecticut and the attorney general," he says. "What is our landlord gonna do for us?"

"I'm sympathetic," says Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Blumenthal says the Department of Agriculture is the landlord for the shellfish beds and as its lawyer he'll investigate shellfisherman claims that this is a recurring problem.

I sent off an e-mail to Blumenthal, through his press office asking about an investigation. On May 4, his spokesman responded with the Attorney General's official statement:

The sewage spill in the Morris Cove neighborhood of New Haven on April 30 is a very serious and urgent concern. I understand that DEP is continuing its active investigation. This factual investigation should provide a full understanding of the cause, nature and extent of the spill. We then will determine, in cooperation with DEP, what legal action under the water pollution laws may be appropriate. I am strongly committed to the protection of Long Island Sound from all encroachments and damage, whether from sewage or unnecessary and inappropriate utility projects. Long Island Sound is a precious and irreplaceable resource, and I will continue to fight to protect it.

In a post here that day, I asked two questions: Should New Haven should be fined for violating its state permit to discharge pollutants? Is New Haven responsible for damages to natural resources such as shellfish beds?

Once or twice after that I asked again about the investigation, and Blumenthal's spokesman's response was always the same: I'll check and get back to you. So far though, nothing.

Then in this post, about 10 days ago, I raised the following possibilities:

Perhaps, in the best case, state officials are diligently doing their jobs and carefully looking into the incident, and that it really does take almost five months to figure out what happened.

Or perhaps they investigated and quickly determined that it was no big deal, that nobody did anything wrong, and that no violations occurred. That certainly was the state DEP's attitude early on, when an official was quoted as saying that mother nature would take care of the problem. I can understand why, if that were the result, they'd want to keep it quiet: who would believe that a 12-million-gallon sewage spill violated no regulations?

Or finally, maybe there never was a state investigation to begin with, and that Blumenthal said there was just because it's one of those things you say when you think you might feel some heat but then you realize there really is no heat because the only person paying attention is a some self-appointed guardian of the Sound who lives in New York and happens to have a blog. (I hope that's not it, for more reasons than one.)

A handful of people at yesterday's event said they'd be checking in here today to read the AG's statement and then getting in touch with his office to see what's up. If you click on the Archives link for May in the right-hand column, and then scroll all the way down, you can read the handful of posts I wrote about the sewage spill.


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