Funding hampers sewage treatment upgrades post-Sandy

The Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement earlier this month that it was awarding $569 million for improvements to wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities damaged by Hurricane Sandy should have been great news here in Connecticut.

In fact, all the money went to New York and New Jersey -– not a penny for the north side of Long Island Sound.

Both Connecticut and Rhode Island were pushed out of the funding by politics back in January. The U.S. House of Representatives reduced the total amount in the Senate-passed version from $800 million to $600 million and specified funding would go only to states in the EPA’s Region 2 -– which includes New York and New Jersey. EPA Region 1, New England, was eliminated.

Granted Connecticut would have only received a relatively small amount of money – $16 million.

But “every dollar counts in this world,” said Denise Ruzicka, director of the planning and standards division in charge of water quality programs and wastewater protection at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “To be fair, it could do an awful lot of emergency planning and retrofits. If you’re a small plant it makes a difference.”

A further reminder of that snub came in a report released about the same time by Climate Central, a climate change research group, that documented all the sewage overflows from Sandy. It found that 11 billion gallons of sewage, about one-third untreated and the rest partially treated, were released into bodies of water from Washington, D.C. to Rhode Island.

Connecticut accounted for about 24 million gallons of that — less than one percent — while New York and New Jersey combined accounted for nearly 94 percent. In Connecticut, all but about 1 million gallons of the releases were partially treated.

The documented overflows here came from 17 sewage treatment plants and pumping stations in 11 communities (another three occurred, but Climate Central could not get the data). The largest came from two plants in Bridgeport that together released more than 19.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage.

The larger of the two, a release of more than 17 million gallons, was enough to rank 25th on the list of the worst overflows during the storm.

Bill Robinson, acting general manager of Bridgeport’s Water Pollution Control Authority, said the cause of the overflow was reduced capacity because the plant was running on emergency power coupled with a load of bad fuel that had to be cleared out of the generator. “We had flooding at the treatment facility, but it only got into one building,” he said. “It impacted access to the site, but it never went under water.

“It came too close for comfort in several other locations.”

Bridgeport still has much larger and longstanding sewage treatment issues to deal with to upgrade its overall wastewater treatment system -– a top priority among projects eligible for funding from the state’s Clean Water Fund. But that is a years-long project when it finally happens. In the meantime the city wants to make fixes to prevent flooding in the event of another Sandy-like storm.

But that will cost about $500,000 — money that might have been a perfect fit for the originally planned EPA funding. The city would prefer not to have to come up with it on its own so Robinson is working with the state to get funding from an energy reserve fund that DEEP set up within the Clean Water Fund to help with projects in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and the 2011 snowstorm.

The money for fiscal 2013, once it is approved by the Bond Commission, will total $2 million and provide funding for projects, potentially like Bridgeport’s, with 20 percent of the funding as a grant and the remaining 80 percent as a loan to be paid back over 20 years at two percent interest.

If Bridgeport doesn’t get that money, said Robinson: “Then we’ll have to try to fund on it on our own.”

Mystic was also listed as having a major partially treated sewage overflow, though Thomas P. Gilligan, Water Pollution Control Agency director for the Town of Stonington, disputed the size and whether it was the Mystic or Stonington Borough plant. But the reality is that equipment was damaged.

Gilligan said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is supposed to reimburse them for 75 percent of the overall $60,000 repair bill  –money they haven’t received yet — but that the remaining 25 percent would have to come from the town.

In the meantime, a major upgrade to the Mystic plant, an $18.3 million project, is being financed through bonding. “The storm-related equipment failures probably would have warranted/demanded a higher level of funding attention from State/Federal sources had the town not already have been into the major upgrade project,” Gilligan said.

Ruzicka said her office in fact worked with EPA after Sandy, talking about funding needs for everything from wastewater treatment upgrades to habitat-related projects. She said in the absence of the EPA funding, DEEP is looking into other sources as well as synergies with projects such as electric generation and wiring upgrades that could also help with treatment plants. But she recognized that lack of funding could hamper improvement efforts.

“I wouldn’t dispute that those situations are out there,” she said.

In the meantime, the state has not given up on getting federal money to help insure sewage overflows don’t occur in the next storm. A spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said they are still expecting some funding in the third Sandy allocation that can be used for wastewater and drinking-water plant improvements.

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