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Ancient Sewers Need Upgrade

February 13, 2005

Fifty times per year, on average, rainfall washes more than one billion gallons of diluted raw sewage into Wethersfield Cove and the Connecticut River. The sewage sometimes backs up into Hartford streets and basements. During major storms, surgical facilities, medical laboratories and the living rooms of luxury condominiums have been flooded with sewage containing toilet paper and other recognizable but unmentionable debris. Wethersfield Cove becomes flooded with bottles, cans, syringes and other "floatables." Even the Legislative Office Building has been flooded.

The resulting damage, often uninsured, costs Hartford homeowners and businesses tens of thousands of dollars per year in cleanup costs. Pets and children also play in the water on the assumption that it is clean, exposing them to disease.

The problem is that Hartford, like many older cities, has a combined sewage system in which pipes carrying wastes are linked to its storm water drainage system. During storms, the combined system overflows.

To address this issue, the Metropolitan District Commission, which operates the sewage treatment system for the eight-town Hartford region, sought advice from a newly formed citizens advisory committee. This group is proposing a 20-year, $610 million improvement plan. Among the highlights: limited separation of storm water and sewage systems in six areas of Hartford and West Hartford where flooding regularly occurs; fixing leaks in suburban sewage pipes; digging massive underground tunnels in Hartford to store contaminated water during a rainstorm until it can be treated; and expanding the treatment capacity of the sewage plant.

Sewage backups and overflows are not new, nor are they exclusive to Hartford. Combined sewer systems were the accepted engineering standard for communities in the United States, especially in New England, well into the 20th century. They afforded efficient use of pipes by conveying both sewage and storm water. They also provided cost-effective and easily managed waste collection, compared to the traditional alternative of shoveling wastes into horse-drawn carts.

These systems discharged untreated sewage into open waterways, such as the Connecticut and Park rivers, Tower Brook, Gully Brook, Folly Brook and the Wethersfield Cove.

In the 1930s, MDC installed our present sewage treatment facility in southern Hartford. This system processes all flows during dry-weather conditions, but cannot process all "combined flows" during significant rainstorms or snow melts. Pressure relief points - called combined sewer overflows - were designed that sent some of the combined storm water and sewage to the same local rivers and streams where they went before the sewage treatment plant was built. Over the years, as more homes were built in the suburbs and as more and more land was paved over, the amount of sewage and storm water handled by the system increased.

Meanwhile, our standards for disease control have improved. Despite periodic improvements over the years, a system that was once state of the art is now severely lacking and in violation of water-quality standards.

Between 1994 and 2002, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection issued four consent orders against the MDC demanding improvements to the Wethersfield Cove and Tower Brook areas. The state has also called upon the MDC to develop a state-of-the-art, systemwide, Long-Term Combined Sewer Overflow Control Plan to comply with state and federal standards and regulations.

In response to these orders, MDC hired consultants to work with a citizens advisory committee to document the problems and develop a comprehensive plan.

The 23-member committee, which includes representatives from all eight of MDC's member towns as well as environmental, merchant, neighborhood and other groups, helped to evaluate the strategies under consideration. The committee met about 10 times over the past six months to study the technical issues, possible remedies and implementation costs.

The committee also developed a set of evaluation criteria whose components include: Do no harm to existing properties and the environment; provide equitable abatement for all citizenry; limit local neighborhood impacts; and provide recognized and immediate improvement to regional water quality.

Goals of the plan include meeting water-quality standards, reducing the overall average occurrences of basement sewage backups to less than one every 10 years and reducing street flooding to less than once a year. The committee also wanted to make sure that this plan advanced ongoing efforts to clean up the Wethersfield Cove.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed long-term plan at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, at the MDC Training Center, 125 Maxim Road in Hartford. Comments from the hearing will be used to develop the final plan. This plan will eventually be presented for a public vote at a bonding referendum. It is important that residents of the affected communities attend and discuss the issues and planned solutions so that the Hartford region can finally end the combined sewage overflow problem.

A copy of the proposed long-term plan is available for review at public libraries in the MDC member towns of Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Windsor, Bloomfield, Newington, Wethersfield and Rocky Hill. It is also available at the MDC Headquarters, 555 Main St., Hartford, and on the MDC website, www.themdc.com, under "News and Events."

Mark Mitchell, M.D., is a public health physician who is president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice and a member of the MDC Citizen's Advisory Committee. He is a member of the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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