Striving for innovation, spending millions, Stamford leaders ignored major problems
This is the first of two parts examining the Stamford sewage treatment plant’s long history of problems, the financial implications for local residents and environmental consequences for the entire state. Part two appears here.
Stamford — In the summer of 2010, residents in the Shippan neighborhood began complaining of strong, unpleasant smells wafting through their open windows and into their cars. They live near the city’s marinas and just to the south of its sewage treatment plant.
So George Stadel and Lou Basel, engineers and newly appointed members to a governing board and advisory committee serving the treatment plant, took a tour of the facility on Harbor View Avenue.
Four years earlier, the plant had completed a $105 million state-of-the-art upgrade — mostly paid for with state funds — that included four new odor control units. But during the board members’ tour, the equipment seemed to be in disrepair.
“We saw pieces of it lying on the ground. We saw a valve on the ground,” Stadel recalled.
When he and Basel asked an employee how long the units had been offline, they got an answer they did not expect.
“He said, ‘They’ve never worked,'” Stadel said.
The odor control units — which plant operators say are “still not at 100 percent” — are among the least of the many problems facing Stamford’s Water Pollution Control Authority, the multimillion-dollar agency responsible for treating sewage for Stamford and neighboring Darien.
After borrowing millions of dollars from the city for immediate repairs in recent years, the WPCA is likely to require millions more, and it has no money on hand for emergencies. State environmental officials say the agency will likely have to remedy that with a significant increase in user rates.
Further, the WPCA appears to have suffered from years of administrative dislocation and neglect. There has been no chief executive since May 2011, when then-Director Jeanette Brown resigned. Only within the past few weeks has the city been able to find an interim director for the agency.
“It is hard to believe,” said Ernie Orgera, Stamford’s director of operations, who took over as WPCA board chairman last March. “I don’t know why things were overlooked for so long.”
Many current and former officials say the problems can be traced to the administration of then-mayor, now governor, Dannel P. Malloy. They say Malloy, his operations director, Ben Barnes, and Brown skirted and sometimes ignored standard procedures while trying to push through an innovative, ambitious sewage project that could cement Stamford’s reputation as a cutting-edge city. The undertaking would turn waste from the treatment plant into electric power, but was abandoned by the city after Malloy left office.
Critics say that while Malloy, Barnes and Brown spent years and millions of dollars planning the project, known as “Waste-to-Energy” or “Stamford Biogas,” they ignored the real issue: The plant was malfunctioning regularly, costing the city, its harbor and Long Island Sound dearly.
“Waste-to-Energy. This was the big thing,” said Louis Casale, who was on the WPCA board for about 10 years and left the chairmanship and the board in late 2011.
“…We had no idea, at least I had no idea,” he said, “that things at the plant were literally falling down around us.”
A collapsing pipe, sewage in the street
Former Stamford operations director Barnes insists that things were going smoothly when he became the Malloy administration’s state budget czar in late 2010.
“The plant was largely in a state of good repair,” he said. “I’m not going to say that there weren’t some issues that needed to be dealt with, but I don’t believe that there were issues that were out of control.”
But officials from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection disagree. They say some serious problems should have been addressed as far back as 2008, if not earlier. They say the WPCA has failed to maintain its infrastructure properly — possibly in violation of state law.
“I think that a lot of these issues should have been dealt with a long time ago … maybe four years [at least],” said Carlos Esguerra, a sanitary engineer for the DEEP in the agency’s municipal facilities section.
In March 2011, the aging concrete in a 36-inch sewer pipeline in the Wallack’s Point neighborhood gave way.
Four million gallons of raw sewage rushed out of a manhole and onto the streets, over-running one man’s four-bedroom ranch house in the gated community of spacious houses that overlooks Long Island Sound.
Sewage spewed out of the house’s toilets and bathtubs for days. Health officials deemed the house uninhabitable for a time, and the city eventually paid the owner hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.
At the time, Stamford had no comprehensive program to monitor the condition of underground sewer lines — and, in fact, still does not. WPCA supervising engineer Prakash Chakravarti said the paperwork is now in process for awarding one company the project, at cost of about $2 million.
That project has not been the state officials’ main concern, however.
… Secondary clarifier, pumps …
The officials have chastised the WPCA for dragging its feet on fixing a key piece of treatment equipment that broke more than a year ago. Known as a “secondary clarifier,” it is one of four huge circular tanks that remove solid waste from sewer water.
Because only three such tanks have been in service since last summer instead of the usual four, heavy rainfall tends to overwhelm them — and water that should at least look clear once it leaves the tanks is instead a chocolate-brown. A $1.4 million project to fix that clarifier was finally completed in December, but since then, another clarifier has been taken off-line for repairs.
“Our problem comes in when we get a torrential downpour … and this [system] can’t handle that,” said plant supervisor Bill Degnan, who began his job in Stamford last summer. “Once it starts, we’re under Mother Nature. There’s not a whole lot we can do until the volume of water that’s coming in from the storm eases off a little bit.”
Superstorm Sandy did not cause any significant problems for the plant, since rainfall was relatively low. But in late September, the lack of that one working clarifier allowed 2 million gallons of sewer water to flow into Stamford Harbor without being fully treated. The event, known as a sewage bypass, dealt a blow to the area’s already hard-hit shell-fishing industry.
“When the sewage plant doesn’t operate correctly, we have to close the shellfish area,” said David Carey, director of the Department of Agriculture’s aquaculture division. The department must wait until bacterial and viral levels in the water return to normal, or there’s an increased chance of food-borne illness for those who eat the harvested shellfish.
Carey said that as a result of sewage bypasses in 2011, Stamford Harbor’s shellfish beds were closed for more than 100 days.
“There was a huge impact,” he said. Other bypasses, in 2012, were caused not by problems with the secondary clarifier, but with the final effluent pumps, which send the water into Stamford Harbor at the end of the treatment process.
Last October, the pump controls failed. That caused high tide waters to back up into the plant, interfering with the final steps of the treatment process. About 43 million gallons of partially treated sewage went into the harbor.
Normally, a backup pump should have kicked in. But Chakravarti said that pump’s controls were also out for repairs.
“We understand that, but that can’t happen,” Carey, of the aquaculture department, said. “Stamford didn’t have a back up … You’re operating a system that’s critical to public health, and you don’t have parts on hand.”
… Faulty UV system
On top of concerns about the condition of the pumps is unease about the ultraviolet disinfection system installed as part of the $105 million upgrade in 2006. Engineers are still not convinced the ultraviolet lighting is working as it should, and consultants are now evaluating its condition.
Optimally, the partially treated sewage is exposed to the UV radiation, killing any living organisms. But during some periods of heavy rainfall that occurred last year, staff at the plant had to raise and disable the lamps. They did so out of concern that the effluent pumps couldn’t handle the excess water, which would then overwhelm the lamps.
Carey said that without the ultraviolet disinfection, there is a chance that bacteria or viruses in the water could contaminate the fish caught for human consumption.
“You can’t take that chance,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t feel very good about it, but we just can’t guess.”
Carey said the problems in 2011 were far worse than they were last year, and he thinks plant operators are doing a better job. Still, the key issues that caused the bypasses have not been fully addressed.
Controls for the effluent pumps have been fixed, but there is still concern that the pumps themselves should have been built at a slightly larger size during the upgrade. They will eventually need to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $2 million.
As for the ultraviolet lighting, plant supervisor Degnan said that is not a priority.
“That’s something we want to look at, but we have a lot of issues here that are more pressing right now than that,” he said. “Right now, it seems to work OK.”
The state-of-the-art upgrade
Many of the plant’s major problems date back to the $105 million upgrade — which included the installation of the ultraviolet lighting system, effluent pumps and odor control units.
Completed in 2006, the improvements were celebrated with much fanfare. The design engineering firm responsible for the work, Colorado-based CH2M Hill, which has an office in Wethersfield, accepted a joint award with the Stamford WPCA known as the “Grand Award for Engineering Excellence” from the American Council of Engineering Companies in Connecticut. Most of the upgrade was paid for by state, not local, taxpayers.
Jeanette Brown, the former plant director, insists that the upgrade was successful, and that any problems now are because of the lack of good management since she left in 2011.
“It was a really good project,” Brown said. “First of all, we finished on time and we finished on budget with no construction claims. For a project that big, it’s really a good thing. I don’t know if Stamford people realize the importance of not having claims after a project like this.” (A claim is a bill for further work that needs to be done after a project is completed.)
In fact, millions of dollars have already been spent evaluating what went wrong since the upgrade, and what else needs to be fixed. After months of consideration, Stamford’s Board of Finance is commissioning a full audit of all capital projects that were done at the WPCA in the past 10 years. It will be an expensive undertaking, but one that many say is necessary.
“We spent a lot of money,” said Louis Casale, former chairman of the WPCA board. “It’s a shame. Did we get what we paid for?”
Brown and Barnes pointed out that the upgrade included a new state-of-the-art nitrogen removal system that has allowed the WPCA to collect millions of dollars in nitrogen credits from the state.
“It was far and away the most successful nitrogen-removal program of any WPCA in the state,” Barnes said.
True, one observer says, but the hundreds of millions of gallons in sewage bypasses may well have negated that.
“When you start having problems with your facilities… you almost negate the benefit of nitrogen that you’ve gotten from other parts of the year,” said Leah Schmalz, legislative director for the advocacy group Save the Sound.
Trying to get answers
The challenges have been tough for many Stamford and WPCA staff, who say they are inheriting issues that were ignored for many years.
“Most of the infrastructure issues we’re dealing with today are issues that were born a number of years ago,” said Mike Handler, the city’s new director of administration who began his job just a few months ago. “But there’s also an absence of good leadership and management at the plant right now.”
At a recent WPCA board meeting, the authority’s auditor noted that, as part of its yearly audit, it will cite the agency for “material weakness” for the second straight year. That’s the strongest reprimand an auditor can give, said Bruce Blasnik, a partner with the Stamford auditing firm O’Connor Davies.
“I don’t think anyone can really tell me who’s in charge of the plant right now,” Blasnik told Stamford officials at a recent meeting. Blasnik said the firm had trouble completing its yearly audit: “We couldn’t get answers to questions we should have had answers to.”
Financial management at the plant has also been under scrutiny, as various officials argue over how much money the WPCA actually has to take care of what needs to be done. When Handler wanted to lend the WPCA $1.4 million from the city’s coffers to pay for repairing its secondary clarifier, members of the board of finance balked, saying the agency should have millions from bond proceeds to pay for the work.
To resolve the issue, Handler resorted to paying the WPCA’s auditor $10,000 to complete a report showing that all of the WPCA’s bond proceeds had been spent. Some members of Stamford’s Board of Finance, an elected group, still insist that is not the case.
For years, the WPCA has borrowed money from the city to finance many of its key projects. But state officials say the authority needs to have far more money on hand for repairs. Most likely, the user rates — which rose from $2.06 per hundred cubic feet of water in 2004 to $3.89 this year — need to go higher. The current WPCA operating budget is about $23 million.
“The system is falling apart, because they don’t have enough money to maintain it properly,” said DEEP’s Carlos Esguerra.
It’s not clear whether the additional money will come from the state, the city, or the sewer users in Stamford and Darien. But it will have to come from somewhere.
As Dennis Greci of DEEP’s municipal facilities section puts it: “In one form or another, some taxpayers in Connecticut will wind up paying for whatever repairs are needed in Stamford.”
Coming Tuesday, how an ambitious, cutting-edge project failed.
For a radio report, click here.
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