Fairfield gives green light to Exide cleanup

Town commissions, FairPLAN, end intervention

Thomas Steinke, Fairfield’s Director of Conservation, discusses the railroad drain pipe along the Exide property during a Shellfish Commission meeting on July 10. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Thomas Steinke, Fairfield’s Director of Conservation, discusses the railroad drain pipe along the Exide property during a Shellfish Commission meeting on July 10. (Shawn O’Sullivan Photo)

Plans for cleanup of the Mill River are once again moving forward. In a joint session on Aug 1, The Harbor Management, Shellfish and Conservation commissions all voted to end Fairfield’s intervention in planning the removal of contaminants left in the Mill River by the former Exide battery plant.

In January of this year, after an information session held by DEEP and Exide, both Fairfield’s Shellfish Commission and local advocacy group Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods (FairPLAN) requested a public hearing on one of the permits required for Exide’s remediation activities. This delayed DEEP in approving Exide’s plan, and led to a new approach.

During a series of 10 “facilitated technical sessions” in May and June with independent facilitator Cindy Cook, Exide made changes to its proposal, with representatives from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; Fairfield’s Conservation, Shellfish and Harbor Management commissions; town officials, FairPLAN and Exide all working together.

On Tuesday FairPLAN announced that it would withdraw its intervention.

In a press release of Aug 6, FairPLAN stated, “From the beginning of this process, FairPLAN’s concern has been for the successful removal of lead in and around the Mill River.”

The withdrawal of interventions by Fairfield and FairPLAN is a major step toward progress in the permitting process and the beginning of work, which could happen as early as next year.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, First Selectman Michael Tetreau credited DEEP with this progress. “Deep didn’t have to let any of this happen. They could have closed the hearing at public input on Feb 28, gone ahead with a solution and it would have all been legal.”

“They chose a better way,” said Tetreau. ”They chose to include the stakeholders in the process.”

Tetreau said the facilitator was “invaluable in helping to work out our resolution.”

“Whenever you start a process there is a certain amount of mistrust on both sides, and certainly a certain amount of misunderstanding, and a fairly complex technical process. The facilitator was invaluable to helping to get issues in front of people and getting those issues addressed so then we could move on to the next issue.”

Some of the issues discussed among the parties included control of suspended sediment, the technology for removal, protection for migratory fish and shellfish, and concerns about two drain pipes bordering the Exide property.

“The town and FairPLAN have been involved the past three or four months because DEEP changed the paradigm to allow ongoing discussions, and to allow input and feedback, Q&A, and some very significant time and work sessions,” Tetreau said during the Aug. 1 meeting. “I think that this has been a win for Fairfield.”

At the meeting Tetreau also praised Exide for “repeatedly demonstrating a willingness to go beyond the minimum to meet your obligations to our community.”

During the Aug. 1 meeting Cook shared a brief overview of the remediation proposal and discussions. During a public comment period, several residents expressed concerns about two drain pipes bordering Exide’s property, one along the Metro-North Railroad tracks, the other along the Post Road. Both drain to the river.

Katherine Braun, RTM member and attorney for FairPLAN, requested that the pipes and soil around them be tested.

Patrick Bowe, director of remediation for DEEP, gave assurance that no further investigation of the pipes is needed.

“The amount of lead in that water was below the detection levels of the laboratories,” Bowe said. “No lead exiting the pipe; no pipe connecting to it; no lead in the ground water; no lead in the soil, and therefore affirmative evidence against going after that pipe.”

FairPLAN’s statement on Aug 6 noted, “While we do not feel that Exide’s plan is as comprehensive as it could be, DEEP has assured us that if lead is discovered after the planned clean-up, Exide can still be held accountable for future lead remediation. We intend to rely on that assurance from DEEP as an important safeguard in the restoration of the Mill River area to the healthier condition it was in prior to decades of lead contamination.”

After the meeting, Bowe reiterated that during the closing and demolition of their plant, Exide “chased” all of the pipes.

“The last order removed the requirement to get into the storm drain and videotape anything,” Bowe said. “The reasons for that are that the company closed the plant, and demolished the plant. They took the foundations out of the ground. Every place there was piping, they followed to wherever it ended.”

No pipes led to the storm drain, Bowe said.

“They tested and then if it needed it, remediated underneath where piping was removed,” he said. “They took away all of the contaminated soil, and closed the facility with all of the soil meeting residential standards. Once they had done that, any concern that we had that they might be releasing untreated lead-bearing waste into the river, is, 20 years after they closed the facility, a moot point.”

Betsey Wingfield, chief of the DEEP Bureau of Water Protection and Land Reuse, also sent a letter to the Town of Fairfield indicating “the department has no intention of pursuing further investigation of the railroad drain at this juncture. Concerns about possible or theoretical contamination should not delay or derail cleanup of the known contaminant load in the Mill River.”

During the meeting Braun also requested that the Connecticut Department of Transportation be brought into the equation as the disputed pipes are on its land.

Bowe noted that the issue of the pipes was discussed with DOT, and “they are comfortable with it.”

Bowe called the railroad drain the cleanest in Fairfield, saying there is no detectable lead in the water it emits.

Bowe later said, “If there is a pocket of lead somewhere that is Exide’s and it is subsequently discovered, we can go after them [Exide] to remedy that.”

Bowe said that the Mill River is a priority for DEEP. “It is a significant estuary. It is a valuable resource and needs to be protected. We want an outstanding job done and I think that is what we are going to get with this plan.”

“The people involved put all of their heart, all of their soul, into that work,” Bowe said of the process. “They worked with DEEP, with Exide, and amongst themselves and showed up day after day, week after week for many weeks. These people really pull out the stops when they serve their community.”

Tetreau concurred. “There is no question that what makes Fairfield special is volunteers who spend their time focused on nothing more than trying to make the community better. Those three commissions are an example of that.”

”It’s a great experience to see the community come together, join forces, get a resolution,” he said. “When you think back to January, when there was a host of concerns and uncertainties, this has been a tremendous community building experience.”

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