The Metropolitan District Commission has until 2020 to stop the flow of a billion gallons of raw sewage annually into area rivers. It's going to cost more than a billion to do it.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
December 27, 2007
After a year of controversy surrounding its commitment to minority hiring, the Metropolitan District Commission is set to begin work late next year on the first major piece of its $1.6 billion Clean Water Project to fix Hartford's nearly 160-year-old sewer system.
Contractors will bore a 3,400-foot-long "microtunnel" — six and one-half feet in diameter and 25 to 40 feet below the surface — from Homestead Avenue to Bushnell Park to minimize the amount of raw sewage overflowing into Gully Brook and return the stream to its "natural state," according to Robert A. Weimar, chief of program management for the project.
"The tunnel has to go under I-84 and two railroads in fact," Weimar said. "It's pretty sophisticated."
Weimar estimated the cost of the tunnel at $25 million to $30 million.
The MDC is under consent orders from both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection to put an end to the billion-plus gallons of diluted sewage that is discharged annually into the Connecticut River by Hartford's antiquated sewer system, affecting some 30 miles of the river.
Hartford, like many urban areas in the United States, combines both sewage and storm water in the same pipe in its sewer system. During heavy rains, those pipes, some dating back to 1850, are overwhelmed and overflow into the Connecticut River and its tributaries — not to mention streets and basements around the city — something that happens more than 50 times yearly.
The EPA and DEP mandated that Hartford and the seven surrounding towns served by MDC, Bloomfield, East Hartford, Newington, Rocky Hill, West Hartford Wethersfield and Windsor, meet Federal Clean Water Act goals by 2020.
In November 2006, voters approved a referendum authorizing bonding for the first $800 million to be spent toward meeting those goals. Now, authorities will be watching to make sure projects get under way.
"We have to by 2012 be able to show we've been authorizing contracts at a rate of $90 million a year. By 2012 we have to invest more than $450 million," Weimar said. "We intend frankly to have authorized spending most of the $800 million by 2012."
In 2012, MDC anticipates a second referendum to authorize an additional $800 million to complete the Clean Water Project.
MDC hit a major snag in the last legislative session when state Rep. Art Feltman and Sen. Eric Coleman, both Democrats, tied up a bill authorizing a surcharge on water bills to cover borrowing costs for the $800 million bond.
The two Hartford legislators added language requiring 18.75 percent of the Clean Water Project work available for small businesses to go to minority-owned firms. The amendment also required 25 percent of the workers on the project to be minorities and 5 percent to be ex-offenders off parole or probation.
Negotiations between MDC and the two legislators failed in August when Feltman and Coleman tried to include a minority contractor who could benefit from the Clean Water Project in the discussions.
In October, MDC bypassed the legislature, passing its own ordinance allowing it to add a $32 to $35 surcharge each year beginning in January to the bills of its 89,000 water and sewer customers. In 2008, the average bill is expected to be $439, compared to $400 this year.
"The towns forcibly said 'You must do something to address this issue, we can't wait for the next legislative session,'" said Weimar.
Meanwhile, MDC has commissioned a disparity study to identify why minority firms have been unsuccessful in getting sewer work in the past. MDC is also looking at ways to break down the work into smaller projects that smaller minority-owned firms can do, according to Weimar.
Andrea Comer, past president of the Greater Hartford African-American Alliance, said last week she was encouraged that MDC hired attorney Franklin Lee, a well-respected consultant from Baltimore, to do the disparity study.
"In Atlanta they did a huge minority contracting program and he spearheaded that," said Comer. "I'm impressed with his track record. We're not talking about carving out a couple of contracts for colored folks."
Feltman said he and Coleman are also satisfied that Lee was the right choice to move the minority hiring issue forward.
"The question is to what degree people can be assisted and guided and financed to be able to manage the work, so that when the construction occurs we'll have qualified minorities to do the work," said Feltman.