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Storms Worsened Sound's Sewage Problems

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Shortly after Hurricane Irene rolled through Connecticut, people near Fairfield’s beaches were warned not to wade in the flooded streets because sewage had possibly mixed with the rainwater. It turns out that was a problem not just for flooded streets but also for all of Long Island Sound .

Millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the Sound during Irene and the October snowstorm that followed, according to a recent report by The Hartford Courant . A total of 47 sewage treatment plants reported spills to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection during the two storms and their aftermath. But sewage spills into the Sound might not be as rare as a once-in-a-generation storm such as Irene.

The main problem during Irene stemmed from power failures at sewage treatment plants across the state. For example, Sidney Holbrook, executive director of the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority, told the state’s two-storm panel that 15 of his company’s wastewater treatment plants lost power on the Sunday that Tropical Storm Irene hit Connecticut.

Holbrook speculated that the problem could have been worse had the storm been a full-fledged hurricane. “If a storm of greater magnitude were to come ashore and create a situation where we lost power — currently we have no ability on site to generate power and maintain our pollution abatement process,” he said in his testimony.

But the Sound’s sewage problem existed even before Irene, according to the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. The group’s 2011 State of the Sound report cited raw sewage treatment as one of the worst aspects of the state’s handling of environmental issues in the body of water.

“While progress has been made, much more needs to be done,” the report states. “Continued commitment by these cities, even in tough economic times, is required.”

The issue, they say, is Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) systems in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and other municipalities across the state. In these systems, residential and industrial waste water flow though the same outlets as storm runoff.

In normal conditions this is not a problem, as all water flows to treatment plants. But during heavy rains, such as during Irene, there is too much water for the plants to handle. Excess water flows untreated into the Sound.

Holbrook told the storm panel that the power failure side of the problem was being corrected. His organization and its counterparts in the rest of the state are adding on-site backup generators. All plants should be backup-capable “within two years,” Holbrook said.

The state is also working to correct its infrastructure problems. From 2008 to 2011, the General Assembly committed $875 million in bonding to issue grants and loans to municipalities for clean water programs. For example, Hartford is using part of the money to update its CSO system. The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, however, says the state still has more work to do.

“While CSOs separation has been achieved in both states, public health is still at risk and the Sound’s waters, critical to supporting wildlife, are still far from clean,” reads the group’s 2011 report.

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