PRESS RELEASE: Mill River sewage spill shows need for preventative action and prompt public notice across region

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 9, 2020

Contact:  Anthony Allen, 860-604-720, Laura McMillan, 540-292-8429 

Mill River sewage spill shows need for preventative action and prompt public notice across region

Two million gallons of raw sewage entered New Haven’s Mill River on Monday July 6—here’s what that means

New Haven, CT—On Monday, July 6, a section of 30” sewer main in Hamden collapsed. Over the course of the day, as crews scrambled to divert and contain the flow, over two million gallons of raw sewage found their way into nearby storm drains and into the Mill River.

Save the Sound was alerted to the issue on Tuesday by several individuals throughout the New Haven community, and has been working to better understand the details of the incident. At a press conference on Wednesday, representatives of the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority (GNHWPCA) and the City of New Haven confirmed that the flow of sewage stopped. Public drinking water is not affected, but residents have been warned not to fish or swim in the river or nearby beaches.

“Save the Sound immediately responded to an outrageous spill of 2.1 million gallons of raw sewage into the Mill River and the Sound,” said Save the Sound President Curt Johnson. “The spill has shut down beaches and undermined the right of thousands of area residents to enjoy a day at the shore. It’s alarming that the WPCA appears to have known for years that this area of pipe was in terrible condition. Raw sewage shutting down our shoreline is unacceptable, but all too common, which is why a strong response and analysis are necessary. Our Soundkeeper Bill Lucey is analyzing water samples for bacterial levels, and our attorneys are submitting a Freedom of Information Act request this week to demand all the relevant facts. Save the Sound will take further action based on this fact finding.”

“It’s important to assess the situation as soon as possible after events like this one,” said Soundkeeper Bill Lucey. “We’re grateful to the community members who reached out and alerted us to the spill. We were able to take water samples in the lower Mill River, at the confluence of the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers, and in New Haven Harbor Wednesday morning, and should have results sometime on Thursday. There were no visual indicators of the pollution on the surface at the time of sampling.”

Save the Sound intern Teagan Smith collecting water samples in New Haven Harbor with Soundkeeper Bill Lucey on the morning of Wednesday July 8.

The extent of human and environmental impacts expected from a spill of this magnitude has been an issue of great concern and confusion. While swimming in the Mill River is never advisable, the City of New Haven has advised all residents to avoid any contact with the Mill River—including boating and fishing—until advised otherwise, and has posted no swimming signs at Lighthouse Point Park beach in New Haven. Save the Sound agrees with these precautions, and also advises that residents refrain from swimming at other locations on New Haven Harbor, including Fort Hale Park/East Shore Beach and Morris Beach, until further notice.

“Two million gallons of raw sewage entering a water body is a substantial volume, and it would take some time for that pollution to be dispersed,” said Peter Linderoth, water quality program manager at Save the Sound. “That said, the immediate areas of concern are the Mill River, New Haven Harbor and then the shoreline in close proximity to the mouth of the harbor. What other communities concerned about this spill can do is take a close look at their own local infrastructure. Ongoing Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) pour hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into our rivers and Long Island Sound each year, plus more from leaks and breaks, so residents should talk with their municipal leaders and report any sewage smells and sights promptly.”

In the aftermath of the spill, questions have arisen about how the incident was handled and how future spills can be prevented, including about the reporting requirements that the GNHWPCA must meet. Connecticut state law, revised to require downstream reporting after advocacy led in part by Save the Sound, reads:

  • Connecticut General Statutes 22a-424(c)(3): “On and after July 1, 2018, not later than two hours after becoming aware of any sewage spill that exceeds five thousand gallons or that is anticipated to exceed five thousand gallons, the operator of a sewage treatment plant or collection system shall notify the chief elected official of the municipality where the sewage spill occurred. As soon as practicable after receiving any such notification, such municipality shall inform the public and downstream public officials, as appropriate.”

”The language requiring notification of downstream communities is not yet as strong as we’d like,” said Kat Fiedler, legal fellow at Save the Sound. “New York’s reporting system keeps the public informed much quicker, and we are currently advocating that CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) adopt a similar live-reporting system for the general public to get this information as soon as it is reported. In addition, we will advocate for clearer reporting requirements so CT DEEP and downstream communities have an actionable sense of the scale of the issue. In order to ensure GNHWPCA is taking sufficient measures to prevent future collapses of this kind, we need to make sure we know what condition the pipes are in (and that a thorough assessment has been conducted) and what urgent rehabilitation work is being done, so Save the Sound is preparing a request for that information.”

Finally, while it is likely that the disturbing reports of several species of fish dying in the Mill River around the East Rock Park area are related to the sewage spill, there is insufficient information to confirm causation.

“There are many factors potentially at play there,” said Lucey. “The fish kill we’re seeing could be the result of heightened bacteria levels in the sewage causing hypoxia (lack of dissolved oxygen). It could also be related to the reported use of sodium hypochlorite to treat the spill, or it could be a result of lower—and therefore warmer—water levels in the river as the Regional Water Authority pumps less water over the Whitney Dam during pre-drought conditions. While it’s likely that the spill and the dying fish are related, we can’t say for sure yet.”

For more background on the sewage spill:

https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/sewer_breakswage_into_mill_river/


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