As rivers go, the Mill River is not exceptionally long, or deep, or wide.
However, it is a major artery in the heart of Fairfield, meandering its way through forest, open space and residential back yards, filling Lake Mohegan, Samp Mortar Reservoir and Perry’s Mill Pond, eventually finding its way to Southport Harbor and Long Island Sound.
Like an artery, it pulses with life — aquatic, botanical, avian, entomological, animal.
And, as sometimes happens to arteries, the river is dangerously clogged, primarily with lead and chromium— heavy metals released over the years by industries located along its banks.
One of these companies, The Exide Group Inc., manufactured automotive batteries from 1951 to 1981. In 1983, under an order from Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, Exide began cleanup of the lead-contaminated sediment using a dredging process. After Exide’s remediation the river was recontaminated, and 30 years later, lead remains present in the river.
In 2008, what is now the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) issued a new order for Exide to remediate the lead from the river and some of the upland parcel of land where the factory once stood at 2190 Post Road. In April 2012, Exide released its proposal for Remedial Action Plan for Lead Impacted River Sediments, known as SedRAP.
Fairfield’s Exide Committee, comprised of members of the Harbor Management, Conservation and Shellfish commissions, met Jan. 7 to discuss Exide’s plan. Referring often to a 27-page point-by-point examination of the SedRAP written by Fairfield Conservation Director Thomas Steinke, they concluded that not enough detailed information is contained in the SedRAP, making the process subject to change by either Exide or its contractors after the project is approved by DEEP though a general permit application.
On Jan. 10, DEEP conducted a public information session on the Exide remediation plan before a packed room at Ludlowe High School, followed by a brief question-and-answer period. Based on “significant public interest” expressed that night, the state Wednesday announced that the deadline for comment on the proposal had been extended from Feb. 11 to Feb. 28.
Exide proposes to dredge five areas at different times, with testing after each area is completed and again after the whole project is finished. At the meeting, officials estimated the project would last from August 2013 to November 2014, which would include work done during fish migration and spawning seasons.
“What’s the hurry?” seems to be the question on a lot of minds.
Dan Schein, who lives on the Mill, voiced his concern about additional disturbance to the river, its wildlife, and people living along its banks if and when Superior Plating is required to remediate chromium. Superior Plating continues to operate across the river from the former Exide site.
“All of us want a cleaner river,” Schein said. “Are we doing this now and then redoing it? Are we doing this and then going back down this road again for Superior Plating? Let’s not do that. We don’t want to do this twice. For the better good, I’m willing to proceed forward with whatever cleanup needs to be done. Let somebody put a pencil to paper and say let’s not spend millions and millions of dollars. Let’s do it once.”
Carolyn Fusaro, DEEP project manager for the Mill River cleanup, said some chromium is located with the lead, and that DEEP is working to evaluate whether additional sediment needs to be removed.
“There is some additional evaluation we need to complete, and we hope to complete it soon,” she said at the meeting. “Our hope is to have only one disturbance to the river.”
Attorney and RTM member Kathryn Braun had many questions, asking about a drainage pipe adjacent to the railroad, which some suspect has not been adequately inspected. She also said the proposal lacked information on the restoration of the river’s fragile benthic substrate, or river bottom.“There is just some sort of hope it will recolonize itself,” Braun said. “Exide is not being required to restore the habitat so animals can repopulate and the ecology can be restored.”
Traci Iott, supervising analyst for DEEP, assured Braun, “Our experience shows that the plan will be sufficient for recolonization and the re-establishment of a healthy aquatic community.”
Braun also questioned whether Exide could be held responsible going forward if lead reappears in the river.
Robert Bell, assistant director of DEEP, said the agency does have the authority to go after the company if problems were to develop.
Harbor Management Commission Chairman Mary von Conta submitted a summary of 15 questions from the Exide Committee, and voiced some of its most pressing concerns: the lack of detail in the proposal, the potential for re-suspension of sediments during dredging, proper monitoring of the dredging process, and the timetable, which would include migration and spawning periods.
Noting that the 30-day question-and-comment period was not nearly adequate for various Fairfield town agencies and commissions to meet and discuss such a critical issue, von Conta then requested that the comment period be extended to 90 days. Bell said the request would be considered.
Charles Petruccelli, president of Fairfield-based Nutmeg Trout Unlimited Chapter 217, said he would encourage his chapter’s 350 members to submit comment to the DEEP. Work by Exide will affect work by TU and other conservation groups to restore the Mill River.
“Trout Unlimited’s mission is to conserve, protect and restore coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. As such, we have been following Exide’s remediation effort with great interest for many years,” said Ross Ogden, conservation chairman for Nutmeg TU Chapter 217. “We are encouraged to see a Remedial Action Plan come together, but we do have some substantial concerns that echo those expressed by the town of Fairfield’s Conservation Department, among others. First, we question the wisdom of any Remedial Action Plan for lead-impacted river sediment that does not include a comparable action plan for chromium-impacted river sediment. Second, we do not believe Exide has done enough to evaluate and explain the environmental risks potentially associated with in-water dredging activity during the spawning season. Lastly, we have yet to see any plan to restore the river to its natural state once the dredging is complete. A true remediation effort would include refilling the dredged holes with clean soil, restoring the river bottom with structural habitat, including rock and logs, and finally, replanting the river banks with native plant species.”
Mill River neighbor Joy Shaw is critical of Exide’s lack of planning to restore the bottom to a pre-dredging state.
“This is an ecological crime,” Shaw said. “For 50 years I have studied the river. This is an assault on upper estuarine portion. Four thousand feet of the river is being affected. They are planning to leave it like a desert on the bottom. If the holes dug up fill up with debris, that will create an anaerobic sump, which animals can’t live in. That will make it impossible for microorganisms to repopulate.”
Jane Cary, who does not live on the river, said it is important for all of Fairfield to care about the issue.
“I am a Mill River parent,” Cary said. “My children are now grown, but when they were young they were involved in the River Lab program. I am shocked by the lack of information that is being given to the public about any of this. I want to be supportive a person in the town. Whether or not I live on the river. It is a beautiful part of the town.”
Braun wants Exide to provide more information.
“We can’t afford to not know now what is in that pipe,” she said. “I would recommend that DEEP require Exide to give more details on the project. And that they put the contour lines on their plans so that we know where the state and our town’s wetlands jurisdiction begin. Only our wetlands agency can make that determination.”
Braun said public participation is crucial to this issue.
“I grew up on this river, swimming on the river. My parents still live on the river. The river is close to my heart,” she said.
The deadline for input is Feb. 28. Comment may be sent to Fusaro by email at email@example.com.
Written feedback should be directed to Carolyn Fusaro, Remediation Division, Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, 79 Elm Street, Hartford CT 06106-5127.