Raw Sewage Dumped Into Naugatuck River

A football-sized chunk of bleached feces sits in the middle of the Naugatuck River hundreds of yards south of the Water Pollution Control Facility in Waterbury. There are thousands of chunks of feces and sewage sludge all along the Platts Mill section of the river.

                    Story and Photographs By John Murray

   The Waterbury Police Department has launched an investigation into what happened at the Water Pollution Control Facility on October 9th that resulted in 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage being dumped into the Naugatuck River.

  “This is not a criminal investigation,” Deputy Police Chief Fred Spagnolo told The Waterbury Observer this afternoon. “We are trying to determine liability.”

   Spagnolo said he also believed that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is investigating the incident. Surprisingly, and before results of any possible investigation from DEEP have been made public, DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain told the Citizen News in Naugatuck last week that DEEP would not pursue any punitive action in the case because the dumping was due to an accident.

   Schain told the Citizen News that “It wasn’t anything they did intentionally or any violation of protocol.”

   Really? The state agency assigned to protect the environment is going to chock this up as an accident and hold no one accountable for dumping 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Naugatuck River. Thousands of fish perished in what amounted to five Olympic sized pools of feces, urine, tampons, condoms and untreated sewage being dumped into the river.

   An inspection of the river on October 22nd – thirteen days after the incident - revealed an ecological disaster; hundreds of dead fish, no sign of aquatic life, and birds of prey feasting on the corpses of bloated and poisoned fish.

Kevin Zak from the Naugatuck River Revival Group spent eight hours on the river October 22nd documenting the environmental carnage caused by the raw sewage dump. Zak found hundreds of dead fish floating in a one-mile stretch of the river directly south of the Water Pollution Control Facility.

The pipe that delivered 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Naugatuck River on October 9th.

The shoreline and rocks along the Naugatuck River are covered in raw sewage, tampons and condoms.

Dead carp and chunks of sewage have sat decaying in eddys and pools along the Naugatuck River for the past two weeks. With no significant rain since the spill, the flow of the river has been slow, trapping sewage and decaying fish in the Platts Mill section of the river,

   The incident was triggered during a $9 million upgrade to the Water Pollution Control Facility at 210 Municipal Road in the South End of Waterbury.  An electrician from Central Connecticut Cable Company cut into a live wire and blew out power to the entire facility. Back up generators at the Water Pollution Control facility failed to start and raw sewage began to spill into the parking lot at the facility, which was a safeguard plan to control sewage. Hours later, and with no power at the facility, the parking lot was filling with sewage and threatening to engulf the facility.

   At that point, according to an article published in the Republican-American newspaper on October 19th, workers at the plant opened a valve and for the next five hours millions of gallons of raw sewage poured into the Naugatuck River.

   The article written by reporter Michael Puffer was the first public acknowledgement of the accident, and it came ten days after the toxic gruel flowed into the watershed. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary told the Republican-American newspaper he was calling for independent investigations by the Waterbury PD and DEEP into the incident. The Observer contacted Mayor O’Leary this afternoon and he has agreed to be interviewed tomorrow about the incident. When the Observer texted him several images of dead fish in the Naugatuck River, he texted back, “awful.”

A decaying fish and a chunk of bleached fecal material.

Signs informing the public of "potential" health risks weren't posted in the Platts Mill neighborhood until ten days after the incident.

A resident of Platts Mill said he was aware of a small spill of sewage a few weeks ago, but has continued to bring his dog to the river everyday to fetch balls and exercise. "What are you going to do"" he said.

Zak looked skyward as a Great Blue Heron flew overhead.

Two weeks after the accident there are more questions than answers. Here are a few we intend to aggressively pursue in the days ahead;

• Who made the decision to open the valve and release 5,000,000 gallons directly into the Naugatuck River?

• Were there other options to handle the sewage besides contaminating the Naugatuck River?

• The electrical contractor has publicly stated he could have restored power if the city had not attempted to resolve the crisis with back-up generators. Is this true?

• Why did the backup generators fail? Were they tested and maintained in compliance of state and federal regulations?

• And most significantly – why was the public not told about the accident for ten days? There were people swimming in the Naugatuck River on Columbus Day, fisherman hauling out fish, and homeless encampments relying on the Naugatuck River for bathing and cooking and drinking water. Were town officials down river promptly notified that a river of raw sewage was headed their way?

• And when the city finally posted warning notices in the Platts Mill section of the city the sign said, “Warning. Keep Out. Water potentially contaminated by sewage.” The use of the word “potentially” was dishonest. There is nothing “potentially” about 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage. It’s like boxer Mike Tyson slugging you in the face and saying it might “potentially” hurt.

• Where were the systems to warn the public about an extraordinary toxic accident? And why did it take ten days to alert the public?

• Who is going to champion the Naugatuck River in this accident?

The Voice of The River
   Kevin Zak has almost single-handedly dragged the Naugatuck River into the consciousness of Waterbury community leaders and residents. Zak’s journey began more than a decade ago when he decided to defend a one-mile stretch of the Naugatuck River for an entire year. Zak began his task by pulling out hundreds of shopping carts, tires and car parts. Eventually he enlisted his son Tyler and a few friends from the Platts Mill neighborhood and they started the Naugatuck River Revival Group (NRRG).

   The group began organizing cleanups of the river and in 2008 Zak organized the first ever canoe and kayak race in the Naugatuck River and he invited community leaders from the Naugatuck Valley to participate. The event was so successful it directly led to efforts in Waterbury to create a greenway along the river to showcase the revitalized Naugatuck River.

    Zak met his wife Sondra while championing the river, and she has joined his crusade to clean the watershed and document and protect the wildlife. They were married last year in Platts Mills while standing in the middle of the Naugatuck River, all of which makes the environmental disaster that took place on October 9th personal and heartbreaking.

   During a full day inspection of the carnage along the Platts Mill section of the Naugatuck River Zak said he is outraged at the damage to the environment. “I’ve invested thousands of hours of my time in cleaning this stretch of the Naugatuck River,” Zak said, “and now everything in it is dead. Someone needs to be held accountable."     •

One of Zak's fears is that birds of prey; ospreys, bald eagles and great blue herons would eat the dead fish and get poisoned themselves. Everything is interconnected and the damage is still unfolding.

Chunks of feces sit atop rocks and boulders waiting for the next heavy rain to wash them down river towards the lower Naugatuck Valley, the Housatonic River, and Long Island Sound.

Kevin and Sondra Zak have spent thousands of hours cleaning the Naugatuck River and were both heartbroken at what they encountered on the river 13 days after the incident. Neither had been aware of the accident until the Republican-American story was published on October 19th, ten days after 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the watershed.

Near the end of his day of documenting the environmental disaster, Zak began to find corpses of fish that had been plucked from the river and partially devoured by birds of prey. He fears the birds may also be impacted by the toxins.

Fifty fish were found dead in Naugatuck a few days after the spill, but Zak counted more than 200 dead fish in the Platts Mill section on October 22nd, and estimates that thousands of fish perished in the incident.

Two weeks ago Kevin Zak was documenting the damage of Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys, and said that what he experienced Sunday on the Naugatuck River had the same impact on him. "Personally this is an environmental hurricane that came through here," Zak said. "Someone has to be held accountable for this."