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
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
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.
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