DEEP Troubles On The Naugatuck

A containment boom and absorbent pads at a drainage pipe in Waterbury where an estimated 6000 gallons of hydraulic oil escaped from the Somers Thin Strip manufacturing plant in the South End of Waterbury on January 20th.

                     Story and Photographs By John Murray

   The sky above the Kinneytown Dam in Seymour was battleship grey and environmentalist Kevin Zak was angry. On January 20th an industrial accident at Somers Thin Strip in Waterbury had spilled an estimated 6000 gallons of hydraulic oil into a storm drain that flowed directly into the Naugatuck River. 48 hours later, as Zak watched, the oil was still tumbling over the dam towards the Housatonic River, and onward towards Long Island Sound.
   “This is a disaster and I’m pissed off,” Zak said. “What’s going to happen to the ducks and herons and wildlife that live in the Naugatuck River? This spill is as bad as the 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage that was dumped into the river in October. It’s a different compound, but it’s just as devastating.”

  Zak watched an endless rainbow sheen of oil crash over the dam, and then pointed out five hooded mergansers (ducks) diving for fish about 100 yards away.

   “For much of the past two days the entire surface of the Naugatuck River has been covered by hydraulic oil. The birds have to have oil on their feathers,” Zak said. “They have to.”

Environmentalist Kevin Zak is the president of the Naugatuck River Revival Group and is pictured here at the Kinneytown Dam in Seymour.

A hooded merganser glides through a sheen of oil Monday afternoon above the Kinneytown Dam in Seymour. Despite claims from DEEP officials that no wildlife had been negatively impacted in the spill, wildlife experts know that the oil will get on the birds feathers and will be ingested during preening.

   Two separate spokesmen for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) had staged press conferences at Somers Thin Strip the previous 24 hours stating that there had been no negative impact on wildlife from the oil spill. There had been a fishing advisory issued and a precautionary warning not to eat the fish, but thousands of waterfowl, raptors and beavers were not being addressed during DEEP press conferences.

   Consider an e-mail report sent the night of the spill from DEEP supervisor Jeff Chandler who was coordinating the clean-up. The e-mail stated, “a flock of Canada geese has been observed in the area of Platts Mill Rd. and Bristol St. in Waterbury.  It appears they were in contact with oil, but in no apparent distress.”

   Two days later Chandler stood in front of the statewide media on Baldwin Avenue in Waterbury, across the street from Somers Thin Strip, and again stated that there had been no impact to the wildlife on the river. When asked how he knew that, Chandler said DEEP had staff out looking and “we’ve seen no fish kill or abnormal behavior from fish.”

   Zak, who is the president of the Naugtauck River Revival Group doesn’t believe the DEEP statements. “They saw a flock of geese at dusk and reported they weren’t in distress,” Zak said. “The oil will get on their feathers and when the birds clean themselves they’ll ingest the toxins and could be poisoned. We don’t know what the impact is yet, but it’s not good.”

   After watching the hooded mergansers, Zak moved north across a small railroad bridge while keeping a wary eye out for an approaching Metro North train. Safely across the bridge, Zak talked about the thousands of migrating fish thwarted at the base of the Kinneytown Dam every year, and of his hopes to find a political solution for having the dam removed. As he spoke passionately about Sargasso Eels, Shad, and Alewife fish, Zak yelled out, “Bald Eagle”, and pointed into the sky. Seconds later he hollered, “there’s another Bald Eagle. They must be the Naugatuck River’s nesting pair.”

   It was a glorious moment, but then Kevin Zak stood in the dwindling light of a bleak New England day and pondered the impact the oil might have on the two Bald Eagles. The oil crashing over the dam will churn in the white water and be absorbed into the gills of fish. The eagles will eat the fish, and potentially ingest toxins further up into the food chain.

   “That’s the thing about the environment,” Zak said. “It’s all connected. You can’t look at a few geese at Platts Mills and conclude there is no environmental impact on the wildlife in the Naugatuck River. Nature doesn’t work that way.”

The entire Naugatuck River was covered in hydraulic oil at 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, January 20th, when Sondra Zak captured this image from the Pulaski Bridge in Naugatuck. Sondra’s 911 call alerted the Naugatuck and Waterbury fire departments that they were now facing an environmental disaster.

Jason Jadach was fishing at the mouth of the Housatonic River on Monday, January 22nd and videotaped a juvenile striped bass swimming upside down in an oil slick. He sent the video to The Waterbury Observer, and reported that the fish was disoriented, but did swim away.


The Spill
   The call for help from Somers Thin Strip went out to the Waterbury Fire Department and DEEP at 3 pm on Saturday, January 20th. There had been a spill estimated between 100 and 200 gallons of hydraulic oil, and Somers Thin Strip was self-reporting.

   Waterbury Fire Chief Dave Martin said the department’s first priorities were to control the site, get people safely away from the spill, stop whatever was leaking, and control the spilled product with booms and absorbent pads.

   “By the time we arrived the valve was already repaired,” Martin said. “We secured the scene and went to the storm sewers to place booms and absorbents pads around them. Then we looked down into the storm sewers to see if any product was there.”

   Martin said there was some oil at the base of the storm sewer, but the level of oil had not risen up to the height where it would be released into the sewer system.

   Martin said the Waterbury Fire Department believed it had accounted for the reported 100 gallons of missing oil and had secured the scene. “Our work was done and we handed the scene over to DEEP,” Martin said.

Waterbury Fire Chief Dave Martin, left, and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary.

   DEEP supervisor Jeff Chandler was working with the same information provided to the Waterbury Fire Department; an estimated 100-200 gallons of leaked hydraulic oil from a broken pipe fitting.

   “We looked into several catch basins inside the facility and they had not been impacted by the spill,” Chandler said. “The company had told us they had experienced a 100 to 200 gallon loss and we believed we had accounted for the oil.”

   Two and a half miles away the story was about to take a dramatic twist. Joe DeMatos was enjoying his afternoon at the Polish American Club in Naugatuck at 4 pm when he noticed an oil slick on the Naugatuck River. The slick was large and it kept on coming. After several minutes DeMatos decided to contact “the river guy”, and alert him to a possible oil spill up river.

   The river guy is Kevin Zak, the president of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, and DeMatos reached out to him on Facebook at 4 pm. The NRRG’s Facebook page is administered by Kevin’s wife, Sondra, who by all accounts is the “river gal”. Sondra Zak is the executive director of NRRG and got the message and was at the Pulaski Bridge in Naugatuck by 4:30 pm to observe the slick. When she saw the extent of the carnage she immediately contacted the Naugatuck Fire Department. As she waited for the firefighters to arrive Sondra spoke to a woman on the bridge. The woman watched the slick flowing past and became upset.

   “She asked me if it was another sewage spill from Waterbury,” Sondra Zak said. “And then she began to cry.”

   Naugatuck firefighters scoured the riverbanks trying to locate the source of the oil, and by 5 pm word had reached the Waterbury Fire Department that there was an oil slick on the river.

   “We put one and one together and figured it had to have come from the Somers Thin Strip incident,” Waterbury Fire Chief Dave Martin said, “and we immediately dispatched to the river.”

Waterbury Fire Department arriving at the river at 5:15 pm.

   Meanwhile, back inside Somers Thin Strip the story had changed from 100 to 200 gallons of spilled oil, to 4000 to 6000 gallons, and DEEP’s Jeff Chandler began to hunt for the missing product.

   “The oil had gone underneath a mound of snow and into a catch basin that we hadn’t seen,” Chandler said. “We figured this out about the same time the reports of an oil slick on the river came in.”

DEEP supervisor Jeff Chandler told the statewide media that the size of the Somers Thin Strip spill was of rare magnitude that he sees about once a year.

   Clean-up resources were diverted from Somers Thin Strip and dispatched to a small culvert and drain pipe along South Main Street. The Waterbury Fire Department laid down a boom to trap oil in a lagoon feeding into the Naugatuck River, and Clean Harbors used a vacuum truck to suck up trapped oil.

   “We didn’t think about the river until the river call came in,” Chief Martin said. “Because of the amount of spilled product initially reported by Somers, and our visual inspection of the storm drains, we believed the product had been contained.”

   There are looming questions for Somers Thin Strip to answer;

• When did Somers Thin Strip discover the broken pipe fitting, and how long afterwards did it take for the company to report the spill to DEEP and the Waterbury Fire Department?

• Why was there no effective back-up plan to contain chemical or oils spills from flowing directly into a storm drain?

• How did Somers Thin Strip come up with a 100 to 200 gallon estimate of spilled hydraulic oil? That initial report threw off the Waterbury Fire Department and DEEP’s response to the incident on the Naugatuck River by two hours.

• Somers Thin Strip should know the location of every storm drain on its property. No one at Somers Thin Strip was aware that a storm drain had been covered by a mound of snow?

• There are security cameras at the manufacturing facility and DEEP and the EPA should seize the video footage to see how long the oil leaked and how Somers responded when they discovered the leak.

• Why doesn’t a multi-billion dollar corporation know that a storm drain on their property flows directly into the Naugatuck River?

   Both the federal EPA and DEEP is investigating why there was no sufficient back-up plan – a secondary wall or storage area – to catch and retain the oil on site. State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. has a unique perspective on the spill. Reyes worked at Sargent Manufacturing in New Haven for 30 years and was the general manager at small manufacturing plants in Mexico and South America.

  “I have worked in good plants and horrible plants on the other side of the world,” Reyes said. “I know the damage that can be done. Where was Somers back-up plan? Accidents happen and you have to have a Plan B in place.”

   Reyes lives 100 yards away from the drain pipe where thousands of gallons of hydraulic oil was dumped into the Naugatuck River. Reyes has many friends who work at Somers Thin Strip and he acknowledges the company is an important business to keep in the City of Waterbury. Reyes is also a member of the Environmental Committee in the State Legislature and said he has learned a lot from the Columbus Day sewage spill, and now from the oil spill.

   “I thought DEEP was weak with their response to the sewage spill and now they are not being very forceful with a private company,” Reyes said. “I don’t like it.”

Kevin Zak and Gerry Reyes in the Platts Mills woods following the Columbus Day sewage spill. Reyes attended a conservation summit on January 25th where DEEP Commissioner Rob Klee told the attendees that DEEP was underfunded, understaffed and was challenged with new federal laws as they struggled to keep abreast of the ones already in existence.

   Reyes said he had believed DEEP would be more aggressive and has been perplexed by DEEP’s soft tone towards Somers Thin Strip in the two press conferences he attended, and DEEPs assertions that there had been no negative impact to the wildlife on the river.

   “The public is not ignorant,” Reyes said. “You can’t dump thousands of gallons of oil into the Naugatuck River without hurting the wildlife.”

   Reyes said he has contacted the co-chairs of the Environmental Committee and the sewage and oil spills will be addressed in the legislative session that begins in two weeks.

Randy Boyer sent The Waterbury Observer this image on Wednesday, January 24th. Boyer captured the image at the mouth of the Naugatuck River where it meets the Housatonic River, 11 miles north of Long Island Sound. Boyer described the scene as a large fish kill of Alewife behind the BP Station. The Observer can’t confirm that these fish were directly killed from the oil spill, but it’s the first sighting of dead fish along the watershed since the Somers Thin Strip spill.

   As news of the accident spread across social media the past few days the outrage has been intense.

   Angelica Izquierdo complained, “These companies need to be fined and an inspector should be sent out to mandate systemic improvements to prevent this. Negligence like this not only brings down property values and kills innocent defenseless wildlife, but it also makes Waterbury live up to its disgraceful nickname of ‘ dirty water’.”

   One bright point of this ugly event, is that Somers Thin Strip reported the incident themselves and called for help. DEEP immediately called Clean Harbors (an environmental clean-up company with 200 locations throughout North America) to begin immediate containment and clean-up.

   Another bright point was the response from the City of Waterbury which has learned invaluable lessons from how it mishandled the massive raw sewage spill on Columbus Day. New protocols have been developed and on the night of the spill the Mayor’s Office notified local and statewide media, and Denis Cuevas, the General manager of the Water Pollution Control facility contacted municipal leaders down river.

   “I’m devastated about the oil getting into the Naugatuck River,” Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said, “but I feel really good about the way we enacted our new procedures of letting the public know. Out of something really bad (the sewage spill), something good has happened. We learned something.”

    Despite the improvement in communication, South End resident Sharon Samoska doesn’t believe the notifications went far enough. “Though it seems some agencies were notified, what about residents in areas within feet of this river? What about the fact that DEEP has stated fish are not safe to eat–where are the signs telling fishermen that? Where are the signs for out of town people who launch their kayaks on this river?”

Pools of oil hugged the edges of the Naugatuck River for several days.


The Clean-up
   DEEP and Clean Harbors worked Saturday night, Sunday and Monday removing tons of contaminated soil from inside Somers Thin Strip manufacturing, and trying to contain the oil spill on the river.

   While the work on land appeared significant, the efforts on the river were sloppy and inefficient. When the Observer inspected the containment effort where the drainage pipe entered the Naugatuck River there was an oil soaked absorbent boom laying on the edge of the river leaking collected oil back into the river.

   The Observer videotaped the leaking boom and showed it to DEEP spokesperson Jeff Chandler after his press conference Monday afternoon at 2 pm. Chandler was disturbed by the images, and said the river must have risen since the boom was placed there. But with no rain in the previous 24 hours the river level hadn’t risen at all. It was sloppy work by the Clean Harbors crew hired to protect the river with containment booms.

   The Observer posted the video on its Facebook page and Bob Gauvin replied, “Clean Harbors should be fined or polluting the river with their absorbing boom litter. I know I always wipe up a spill in my kitchen and then throw the mop head on the floor.”

   Further down the river Clean Harbors placed a containment boom just above the Tingue dam in Seymour. The Waterbury Observer went with Kevin Zak to check out the containment boom Monday afternoon and watched as the hydraulic oil flowed freely past the boom in large gaps between the boom and the edges of the river. There was no effort (that we witnessed) to absorb any oil that was contained. DEEP spokesman Jeff Chandler had earlier that day stated to the press that the oil on the river was “non-recoverable”, so what was the point of containment booms?

The containment boom above the Tingue Dam.

Clean Harbors placed a containment boom above the Tingue Dam in Seymour that was ineffective at stopping the oil’s relentless march towards Long Island.

While observing Clean Harbors monitoring their containment boom, The Waterbury Observer did not witness any effort to collect or absorb the hydraulic oil, which begs the question – was this all for show?

   “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Kevin Zak said, “it’s an emergency situation and Clean Harbors has an invitation to use their services, no matter how effective, and they’ll make a lot of money. Putting the containment boom above the Tingue Dam looked good, but what good did it really do?’

   Clean Harbors is the same company that was hired to remove trash and debris along the Naugatuck River after the Columbus Day sewage spill. The Republican-American newspaper, The Waterbury Observer and the Naugatuck River Revival Group all documented Clean Harbors’ work in the South End in November and December, an uneven and uninspired effort at best. Clean Harbors was paid more than $50,000 to clean the trash along the Naugatuck River for several miles. Weeks into their effort the workers were mostly shuffling along the edge of the river in Platts Mills filling a handful of plastic garbage bags a day with debris.

   Kevin Zak lives in Platts Mills and could watch the Clean Harbors effort from his kitchen window. One morning he decided to videotape the clean-up from his house perched on a hill above the Naugatuck River Recreation Access area. As Zak filmed, one of the workers dropped a full bag of garbage in the river and stood on the shoreline and watched it drift south.

   “I couldn’t believe it,” Zak said. “There was no effort to retrieve the bag and several hours later I put on my waders and went into the river and pulled it out myself.”

Kevin Zak retrieved a bag of garbage lost by Clean Harbors in Platts Mills.

   On December 19th the Observer walked the shoreline for a few hours with the workers, a friendly crew, but clearly not motivated to pick up garbage as they stepped over carpets and plastic bottles to nab an aluminum can or piece of paper here or there. Later that day the Observer showed some images of the clean-up to Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and asked who was responsible for overseeing Clean Harbors. O’Leary told us the city was, and the following day, December 20th, Clean Harbors pulled out more debris from Platts Mills than they had in the previous month combined. Dumpsters were filled and workers bustled up and down the shoreline retrieving litter they had been stepping over for much of the past few weeks.

   Had Clean Harbors been called out? Was December 20th the day they had planned all along to attack the shoreline?

   “Something changed that day,” Zak said. “All of a sudden they sprang to life and did a great job. I believe they were inspired by having reporters and cameras documenting their effort. Imagine if they’d worked like that the entire time they were paid to clean the river.”

DEEP and Clean Harbors removed contaminated soil from Somers Thin Strip on Sunday and Monday.

Oil in the ground was easier to access and remove than the 6000 gallons that escaped through a storm drain and covered the Naugatuck River in a shen from Waterbury to Long Island Sound.

Through a decade of passionate volunteer work in and along the watershed, Kevin Zak and the Naugatuck River Revival Group have become the voice for the Naugatuck River.

After a press conference broke up on Monday, january 22nd, DEEP supervisor Jeff Chandler continued talking with Kevin Zak, right, State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr, middle, and The Waterbury Observer.

Public Response
   Thousands of people have responded to the Somers Thin Strip oil spill with anger directed at the company, and a deep sadness, a grieving, that the Naugatuck River has been violated again. The story was covered by local and statewide media, and was picked up by the National Park Service and disseminated across the country.  

   Claire Simons wrote on Facebook, “Years have been spent attempting to bring this once dead river back to life. The recent incidents are unacceptable. All businesses along the river that can potentially discharge hazardous chemicals into the river have a responsibility to have a plan in place and to train their workers in how to handle an emergency. So much damage has been done recently and we all know how long recovery takes. Shame.” 

Days after the spill the hydraulic oil covered the waters from intersection of the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound, all the way back up to the drainage pipe it spilled out of along South Main Street in Waterbury.

    Dan Emerson was fishing on the Housatonic River the Monday after the spill and wrote, “It was pouring down the Housy today the entire 7 hours I was fishing.” 

    Mathew Mallett wrote, “Oh no. Just like the 5 million gallons of sewage, we will pay a token fine ($50,000) for some company to come and clean the trash from a couple miles of river and DEEP will declare victory. It’s like it never even happened. Oh and toss in a couple hundred stocked trout. That really makes it all better.”

The hydraulic oil was difficult to see from ground level, but clear and colorful from the Bristol Street Bridge in the South End of Waterbury.

The environmental impact on the waterays from the oil spill will continue to be monitored, and without an aggressive investigation from DEEP and the EPA, the public may never find out.

   Kari Braz wrote, “So much time and energy was put in to restoring this beautiful river over the past 20 plus years. There were salmon swimming up to spawn again, and Eagles. It’s a crime.”

   Frank Romanelli wrote, “As that river goes, so goes the City of Waterbury. Sad. The Naugatuck River is probably the key to any renaissance for the city.”

   Kevin Zak has been heartened to hear the outcry from the public over the sewage spill and the oil spill. “Twenty years ago nobody would have cared,” Zak said. “When you love something you’ll want to protect it. But in order to love it you have to learn about the Naugatuck River and realize that it’s made an astonishing comeback. The river has healed itself before, and it will heal itself again. But we can all make it easier on the river by not dumping our garbage and our poisons in her.”    •