South End Fears Odors, Trucks and Pollution
Environmental champion Steve Schrag led the fight to have the Zoning Commission rescind approval.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
One year ago community leaders thought they had successfully defeated a proposal by F&G to expand a garbage transfer station in the South End of Waterbury. “We thought the project was dead,” Community activist Steve Schrag said, “but like a zombie, it’s back.”
In February 2017 a hornet’s nest of concerned citizens spoke before the Zoning Commission and raised enough quality of life issues that the commission voted 5-2 to deny F&G’s application to expand their waste hauling from 100 tons a day, to 700 tons a day. A transfer station is a building or processing site for the temporary deposit of waste. Transfer stations are where local waste collection vehicles will deposit their cargo before loading into larger vehicles.
The residents’ concerns about odor in the South End and trucks filled with waste driving through residential neighborhoods and along a proposed greenway were enough to torpedo the project.
At the time Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary was clearly opposed to the project.
“Wrong place, wrong time, and wrong message to send to the residents in the South End of the city,” O’Leary said. “We are working hard to improve the quality of life in the South End, and municipal waste is not part of that vision.”
After the Zoning Commission denied F&G’s expansion plans the company took the City of Waterbury to court. In the Autumn Mayor O’Leary told the Observer that his legal advisors warned him that if the case went to trial that the city could lose, and advised a negotiated settlement.
Without much fanfare the city reached a deal with F&G to haul 350 tons of waste a day (a 350% increase), and the settlement was approved by the Zoning Commission one month ago.
Zoning Chairman John Egan, right, told the public his home was close to the proposed facility.
Some opponents to the F&G proposal site the lacks effort to run its current facility on Municipal Road.
Rain water flows freely through the F&Z facility and deposits pollutants into the Naugatuck River.
This debris came directly out of the F&G facility and was feet away from entering the Naugtauck River.
City residents and project opponents were caught off guard by the settlement, and Schrag, who is the Chairman of the Environmental Control Commission, and a resident of the South End, petitioned the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to get the public back in the process.
There will be a site visit with DEEP officials and the public in June, and a public hearing on June 12th when residents can express their concerns to DEEP officials inside Waterbury City Hall.
Before taking the fight to DEEP and the state permitting process in June, Schrag and an entourage from the Waterbury Neighborhood Council attended the Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday night (April 25th) in Aldermanic Chambers. Residents asked the board to rescind its approval of the settlement, and bring the public back into the conversation.
For more than an hour speakers pleaded with the commission to protect residents of the South End from odor, trucks and pollution. Former alderman Larry De Pillo, a six-time mayoral candidate in Waterbury, told the commission they had the right to rescind their decision based on Roberts Rules of Order. De Pillo challenged the timeline of the settlement between the city and F&G and questioned when Zoning Commissioners were given copies of the settlement, and questioned whether information had been withheld before the commission’s vote.
“You have a right to rescind your vote,” De Pillo said. “This settlement is not in the best interest of the citizens of Waterbury.”
Schrag spoke about the lack of transparency in the settlement process and a lack of public input. He questioned the safety of the transfer station and asked if the fire marshal’s office had inspected the site (there were 300 fires at transfer stations in the United States last year, he said.)
Perhaps the most provocative statement made all night was a comment made by Schrag detailing the amount of pollutants cranked out in the 06706 zip code. Schrag read from a EPA report detailing the amount of chemicals released into the air in Connecticut and said, “10% of all the air pollution in Connecticut comes from one zip code, 06706 – the South End of Waterbury.”
Art Denze said, “the South End is already the recipient of the most polluted air” and encouraged the zoning commissioners to approve clean business into the city.
“Mayor O’Leary has done a great job in cleaning up the Anamet site (in the South End),” Denze said. “But how are we going to attract business to that area when we keep bringing in garbage. It’s disheartening.”
Denze challenged the Waterbury Corporation Counsel’s conclusion that the city would most likely lose to F&G at trial. “There needs to more effort to protect our people,” Denze said. “The South End is our most distressed neighborhood. When is enough, enough?”
South End resident Sharon Samoska noted that the zoning commission began its meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and said the pledge is not just for the rich and for businesses, but for all the people, and implored the commissioners to do something good for the South End and rescind their approval for the F&G project.
Aldermanic chambers were packed with members of the Waterbury Neighborhood Council who have decided to oppose the F&G project.
Corporation Counsel Linda Wihbey, right, conferring with Alderwoman Sandra Martinez-McCarthy.
Several speakers expressed disappointment and outrage that the Corporation Counsel’s Office had not tangled with F&G to protect the citizens of Waterbury.
While the public pleaded with the Zoning Commission to protect residents from odor, trucks and pollution by rescinding their vote, Corporation Counsel Linda Wihbey huddled in the back of Aldermanic chambers with two elected officials from the South End of Waterbury.
Moments later two Democrat alderwomen, Sandra Martinez-McCarthy and Brenda Cotto, went to the podium together and Martinez-McCarthy announced that the settlement was “a done deal and it’s time to move on.”
There was an audible gasp in the chamber and several members of the public spoke out to refute her claim.
Doubt hung in the air. Could the Zoning Commissioners rescind their previous vote and unravel the deal? Corporation Counsel Wihby stepped to the podium and hammered the point that the commission would be “out of order” if they voted to rescind the vote because it had already been approved by a state court.
Wihbey refuted many statements made by public speakers about the timeline of the settlement, and said the entire commission had the full settlement before them when they voted to approve it at the end of March.
And in an instant the fireworks were over. The Zoning Commission’s decision would stand, and the fight to stop F&G’s expansion would move into the DEEP permitting process.
“It was a long shot to get the Zoning Commission to rescind its vote,” Schrag said outside Aldermanic Chambers, “but now the real fight begins.”
The looming question to Waterbury residents now is can they muster the strength and public opinion needed to slay a Zombie?
Alderwoman Sandra Martinez -McCarthy shocked the meeting when she announced the agreement was “a done deal, and it’s time to move on.”
Under the watchful eye of Steve Schrag, Corporation Counsel Linda Wihbey advised the Zoning Commission they had no legal option to rescind their prior agreement.
In the hallway outside Aldermanic Chambers Alderwoman Sandra Martinez-McCarthy explained why she had stated the agreement was a done deal (legally), and said South End residents and the Neighborhood Council should take the battle to the DEEP permitting process. She expressed a desire to oppose the agreement in the next stage of opposition.
F&G has been processing industrial debris, construction material and waste on Municipal Road in Waterbury for years, and is now seeking to expand its operation. The company currently processes 100 tons of waste a day.
F&G representatives have attempted to address community concerns and met with members of the Waterbury Neighborhood Council 14 months ago inside Waterbury City Hall to answer questions. At that meeting Attorney Michael Tansley, representing F&G, said the “odor and traffic issues were very manageable and there would be no impediment to neighborhoods and city roads.”
Tansley said the project could generate five to ten new jobs and would result in increased tax revenue, and cost savings for Waterbury. F&G was asked by the city to pay for an odor study on the project and Tansley said the study concluded that the odor would only be detectible a “couple times a year.”
The odor study was prepared by TRC of Windsor, CT, and a draft report concluded that if F&G implemented ten additional steps to its plan that the facility “would not be expected to create an odor nuisance, except possibly in unusual circumstances.”
One of the ten steps was to evaluate the practicality of “diverting odorous waste loads to facilities with less sensitive surroundings during adverse weather conditions (hot weather).”
Mayor O’Leary is on the record stating said he knows and respects representatives at F&G, but he’s not buying the argument that the odor will only be an issue at certain times of certain days.
“What if that certain day is July 4th or Memorial Day?” O’Leary asked. “Any day is unacceptable in an area that already has issues with odors from the waste water treatment plant. More odor in the South End is not fair, and it is not right. Any odor is too much.”
F&G’s long-term goal is to try and win the city’s solid waste contract that is currently out to bid. If they win that contract there are clauses in the settlement agreement that allow the company to expand to haul up to 700 tons of waste, which is exactly what they originally asked for.
South End resident Sharon Samoska is concerned that there will be a truck filled with waste driving through the neighborhoods every few minutes. The settlement agreement allows the company to increase hauling in an emergency and Samoska said the company “will cry emergency and increase tonnage” whenever they want.
Waterbury’s garbage is currently transported out of the city to be processed, and if F&G wins the contract, Waterbury could save money by having its food waste processed in the South End. F&G lawyer Edward Spinella has said his family has lived in Waterbury for four generations and F&G has operated in Waterbury for 20 years without a complaint. Spinella is on the record stating that a waste processing center in Waterbury would save the city at least $135,000 a year in fuel costs. When asked if F&G had considered other towns for an expanded facility, Spinella said, “no, Waterbury is strategically located and we believe this is an ideal project in an industrial zone. We picked Waterbury because we are here.”
Atty. Spinella acknowledged that odor is a concern in the project and assured members of the neighborhood council that. “F&G was going as far as we can so that you people will not have odor. This is a huge investment for us, and we want to do this right.”
The company plans to bring the trucks into Waterbury from Route 8 using exit 29 at the southern tip of the city. The trucks would head north on South Main Street, cross the Naugatuck River on the Eagle Street bridge, and then take a quick left onto Railroad Hill Street and into their facility. Company officials said the trucks would enter and exit Waterbury the same way.
Residents and city officials have repeatedly asked the company who would monitor truck activity in the city, and the answer is; F&G would. “We control the drivers,” Atty Tansley has said. “If the drivers don’t follow the route we tell them, they won’t work for us.”
The promise of “trust us” rang hollow to Mayor O’Leary last year before the city reached an agreement with F&G. “Excuse me, but that’s the biggest line of bull,” O’Leary said. “These are independent drivers and I suspect they are not going to sit in huge traffic jams on the Mixmaster. I believe they will get off the highway and cut through the neighborhoods.”
Before the settlement O’Leary said he was sympathetic to F&G, but the proposal was not a good fit in a re-emerging and historically neglected neighborhood. And while F&G believes the truck route in and out of the plant will have little to no impact on quality of life in the neighborhoods, they have failed to address the impact on the $7 million dollar Naugatuck River Greenway project that begins construction this Spring. The greenway will run next to South Main Street from Platts Mill Road to the Eagle Street Bridge, and residents enjoying the river walk will contend with the rumble of 140 garbage trucks coming and going from the F&G facility.
Community activist, Kevin Zak, is the executive director of the Naugatuck River Revival Group, and a member of the Naugatuck River Greenway Committee. When contacted, Zak didn’t mince words. “You can’t have 140 garbage trucks driving back and forth right next to the greenway,” he said. “It will kill the quality of life experience for users of the greenway.”
Zak said F&G failed to factor in the “economic externality” of the project, which is a consequence of an economic activity experienced by an unrelated third party. Externality can be either positive or negative to a project. In this case F&G’s project would have a negative impact on the greenway project.
“They don’t see houses along that stretch of South Main Street so they’ve concluded the trucks will not have a negative impact,” Zak said. “That’s convenient for them, but they didn’t put all the factors in the equation, and that’s why we keep getting in trouble down the road. This will kill the greenway, and nobody is even talking about that.”
A peek inside the current F&G facility on Municipal Road in Waterbury.