Last Year's Sewage Spill Was "Serious and Urgent." So Where's the Big Connecticut DEP Investigation that Blumenthal Promised?
I raise the question because it was just about a year ago that 12 million gallons of raw sewage did in fact spill into the Sound, from a treatment plant in New Haven, forcing health officials to close shellfish beds, to make sure contaminated oysters and clams weren’t harvested and sold to unsuspecting consumers. The incident got scant attention from the media – the New Haven Register wrote about it, a New Haven TV station covered it, but neither followed the story after the spill ended, and no one else, to my knowledge covered it.
At the time I asked Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, through his spokesman, if any violations had occurred and, if there were, would penalties be imposed for the violations and for damages to natural resources.
Here’s what Blumenthal, through his spokesman, responded:
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.
Blumenthal’s spokesman is Chris Hoffman. I followed up with him via e-mail several times in the months after the spill. On several occasions he told me he’d check into it and get back to me. He never did.
A week ago Friday, on the first anniversary of the sewage spill, I wrote to him again. I sent him Blumenthal’s statement, to refresh his memory. I said:
To me, the key parts of the statement were the assertion by the Attorney General that the DEP was conducting a factual investigation; and that in cooperation with the DEP, the Attorney General would determine what legal action may be appropriate.
I would appreciate hearing about the results of the factual investigation and receiving any reports that were generated about it. I would also appreciate hearing about whatever legal action the Attorney General thought appropriate; if no legal action was taken, I would like to hear why.
Guess what Chris Hoffman responded? He asked me my deadline (I said blogs had no deadline but that I’d be posting something on Monday – that is, Monday, May 1) and he said he’d check and get back to me.
Guess what I’ve heard from him since?
So what’s with the investigation? Here’s what I wrote about five months after the spill:
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…
Twelve months after the spill, it’s easy for me to choose which of those alternatives I think is true: the third.
To me it seems obvious that in the aftermath of a major sewage spill, Blumenthal or his spokesman felt it necessary to make a statement. There is very little, after all, that Blumenthal does not fulminate about. You can find him expressing outrage about all manner of issues that he thinks are important to his constituents.
So in this case he gets credit for at least giving lip service. The Connecticut DEP, on the other hand, thought the 12-million-gallon spill was not a big deal from the start. Immediately after the spill, the DEP’s Dwayne Gardiner was quoted as saying he was confident "that Mother Nature will take over and correct the problem."
In other words: it’s just 12 million gallons of raw sewage; what’s the big deal?
So if the DEP thought there was no problem, why would they bother to investigate? Blumenthal’s mistake, apparently, was mouthing off about the seriousness of the spill and the diligence of the investigation. He probably should have checked with the DEP first.
Which brings me back to my opening question, the answer to which should by now be obvious:
In this era of environmental awareness, low tolerance for pollution and high concern for Long Island Sound, what is the penalty in Connecticut for allowing 12 million gallons of raw sewage to spill into the Sound, closing commercially-productive shellfish beds in the process?
Answer: there is no penalty.