Getting the lead out: Dredging begins on the Mill River

Gathered at Mill Hollow Park on Oct. 15 to witness the start of the Mill River cleanup are Don Gonyea and Carolyn Fusaro of DEEP, State Rep. Tony Hwang, Ralph Class of CCA, State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, Rich Chandler, Jessica Bilyard and Matthew Winward of CCA, and Ken Money of Exide.  (Shawn O'Sullivan photo.)

Gathered at Mill Hollow Park on Oct. 15 to witness the start of the Mill River cleanup are Don Gonyea and Carolyn Fusaro of DEEP, State Rep. Tony Hwang, Ralph Class of CCA, State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, Rich Chandler, Jessica Bilyard and Matthew Winward of CCA, and Ken Money of Exide. (Shawn O’Sullivan photo.)

Wednesday, Oct. 15 was a lovely Indian summer morning along the Mill River in Fairfield. A parade of Canada geese swam serenely upstream through a narrow 15-foot corridor on the western bank, cordoned off by a long, yellow floating tube. Two swans followed soon after, and close behind, Linda Snelham-Moore in her paddleboat. She stopped to observe a dredging barge moored on the other side of the tube.

Snelham-Moore is the chair of Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods (FairPLAN), a community environmental group. She was there to observe the inaugural day of dredging in the long-awaited process of removing lead from the river’s bottom.

Project history

The saga of contaminants in the river is a long one. Exide, the owner of the property adjacent to the river at 2190 Post Road, manufactured lead acid batteries there from1951 to 1981, releasing contaminated waste into its property and into the river.

Ordered by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEEP) to remove the lead from the river in 1983, Exide complied. However, the river was later found to be re-contaminated, and Exide was again ordered to remediate lead from both its Post Road property and the river in 2008. The building was demolished and the lead removed from the land.

In April 2012, Exide released its “Remedial Action Plan for Lead Impacted River Sediments,” but Fairfield’s Exide Committee, which included members of the Harbor, Shellfish and Conservation commissions, felt the plan did not contain enough detail. At a standing-room-only public information session in January 2013, many voiced concerns, and DEEP extended the comment period.

State representatives advocated for a series of meetings where details of the cleanup were hammered out between Exide, town commissions, FairPLAN and DEEP.

After the revised plan was approved by DEEP in September, First Selectman Mike Tetreau held a public information meeting on the plan on Tuesday, Oct. 14, in the Board of Education’s conference room.

Tetreau, addressing the presenters and attendees, noted how unusual it was for DEEP to change its paradigm. “We owe them our gratitude for those six months of discussions. The normal process says that you have 30 days of public comment and then it’s over. And that’s the last time you are involved. DEEP opened it back up for our commissions because they understand how important Mill River is to us.”

Swimming and fishing

Patrick Bowe, head of Remediation at DEEP, said, “I grew up with my feet in the mud in the Mill River and Ash Creek,” and knew first-hand how important it was to have a viable and healthy ecosystem in the river.

In response to a resident’s question, “Could I eat a fish if I caught a fish? If I fell in today would I be able to drink a bunch of water?” Bowe said, “This is not an issue of lead being dissolved in the water. This is an issue of lead being in the sediment.” He added that there should be “no swimming impact before or after. Lead is not in the water.”
Bowe did, however, note that the fish issue is more complex, due to other contaminants “present in the ecosystem,” including, according to the DEEP website, chromium deposits in the river from the Superior Plating Company, on Lacey Street, and bacteria.

Bowe explained, “The state has standards established for lead above which we are sure that there is damage to the wildlife and the entire biota in the river. When we establish a cleanup standard for a particular site, we look at the viability of the surrounding environment, the nature of the animals that live there, the plants — everything from the fish down to the microbes.”

He noted that there are sections of the Mill River that are extremely high in lead, sections that are moderately high, sections with very little lead. “If the areas are already below that lead standard, Exide is not going to be required to do excavation in those areas.” Stacy McAnulty, project director for TRC, the engineering firm contracted by Exide to conduct the remediation, said that Area 5 — from Mill Hollow Park to Interstate 95 —contains the lowest lead concentrations.

The areas to be dredged, Bowe said, are areas where the lead would kill bottom-dwelling organisms or make them reproduce less robustly, and ultimately damage the “whole of the ecosystem in the river.”

De-leading schedule

Bruce Iverson, TRC’s Project engineer, explained that working from dawn to dusk, Monday through Saturday, the crew will remove leaded sediment in five separate areas, starting with Area 5 and concluding at Area 1, Tide Mill Pond.

To minimize the impacts of traffic and noise, the dredge will operate on diesel fuel with a muffler. There will be no dredging at night; the crew will work from dawn to dusk, Monday through Saturday.

Leaded sediment will be dredged and simultaneously sucked up by an environmental cutter head into a  pipe, where it will be conveyed to the Exide property. There water will be drained from the sediment with “geotextile bags,” fabric tubes that hold the sediment while water flows through them. The water that flows out of the bags will be treated with clarifiers, then pumped through a series of filters in a water treatment facility on the site.

Next year the dewatered sediment will be transported to designated landfills.

The treatment plant will operate 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and water will be tested on a weekly basis to see that it meets EPA standards.

Monitors in the river attached to buoys will measure the amount of suspended sediments — “turbidity” — in the water, and will determine whether sediment inside the curtained area is escaping and affecting water quality. The monitors will be located upstream and downstream and will operate continuously, all day and all night. Iverson explained that the project will use  double “turbidity curtains” wherever possible to prevent sediment from leaking out of the cleanup area.

Once finished with an area, Iverson said, the contractor will collect sediment samples and analyze them for lead, undertaking additional dredging if  the samples don’t satisfy the lead levels laid out in the plan.

To protect fish and shellfish, TRC will suspend work during shellfish spawning and fish migration, and as dredging progresses, the contractor will keep the turbidity curtains and fish corridors in place.

In answer to one resident’s question on whether severe storms had moved any of the lead since the last survey, Iverson said TRC would collect samples to determine whether toxins have been suspended and re-deposited.
Area 5 will be dredged through 2014 as weather permits, Iverson said. But during the winter, the contractor will suspend operations and store the dredging equipment on Exide property, hauling it out again in 2015 for dredging to begin again.

Data quality

Once dredging is complete in all five areas, Iverson said, TRC will collect a sample of sediment every 50 feet on a grid throughout the river, for a total of  447 samples, the data from which will be included in their final report.

Responding to questions at the meeting regarding the transparency of the operation, Carolyn Fusaro of DEEP noted that the agency would be reviewing all the data collected by TRC. “They will be using a certified lab” she said, relying on the data provided by TRC.  The project will make a logbook on all the activities will available for public viewing during the remediation process on Wednesdays, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., starting Oct. 29, or by appointment.

For inquiries, or to be put on a monthly information update list, attendees were advised to contact Richard Chandler at ccaengineering.com, or 203-815-3141.

Safety first

McAnulty reminded everyone at the meeting that as the river is accessible to all, safety must be of prime concern.
“We take safety seriously at the jobsite,” said McAnulty. “I would like to ask the town of Fairfield to be mindful of this project. It is a construction project. You are going to see a lot of activity in the river. People are curious… Help us keep everybody safe in the community.”

Storm pipes

One of the meeting’s attendees was recently retired Conservation Director Tom Steinke. After the meeting, Steinke, who has been involved with the Mill River for 43 years, said he felt the remediation efforts would be largely successful. “The only concern I have is that the lead that may be in the storm sewer pipes of the railroad and Post Road may still be there. “

Said Steinke, ”You look at the project and say that it is a great investment of time and effort and funds by Exide. They are doing a great job. The problem is that for all intents and purposes it is incomplete, until they investigate and clean those pipes before they leave Fairfield.”
“Before Exide leaves town they should, in my opinion, investigate and video test and sample the two pipes: the railroad and the Post Road drains.” It is a position Steinke has taken all along, based on evidence, he says, in Exide’s own remediation documentation.

Steinke doesn’t think it’s too late to address the issue. “When those pipes are flushed clean at some point, or they are disturbed, you can anticipate that any lead in those pipes can be discharged back into the river.” He also thinks that if TRC finds a higher incidence of lead as they come closer to those areas during the remediation, it may change the game.

But now it is Wednesday, and the day of dredging has arrived. A group has assembled on the riverbank at Mill Hollow Park, watching the geese, the swans, and Snelham-Moore in her little boat, waving from the other side. Present are Ken Money, State Representatives Brenda Kupchik and Tony Hwang, DEEP’s Carolyn Fusaro, Personnel from Exide environmental consultant CCA, and McNulty. All are excited to see the process finally under way.

Kupchick said, “I’m very happy. This to me is the perfect example of what a state Rep can do to be helpful. There is a state project happening in our community with the DEEP. They come; they present the project. Our local people were not happy with what they learned. I was able to bring together those people at a meeting in Hartford, and they changed how they were going to implement. That was a home run.”

Hwang agreed. “This is really an indication that business, environmental groups and the legislative process can work together with a mutual respect.”

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