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MDC Seeks To Tackle Sewer Woes

One Big Problem, A Multimillion Dollar Solution

February 22, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL / Courant Staff Writer

Pour too much Guinness into a pint glass too fast and it will froth over. Pour too much rainwater into Hartford's underground pipe system, and the same thing will happen, except what froths over in this case is sewage - inside homes and basements, onto city streets and into the region's waterways.

Hartford's outdated sewer pipes, overburdened with sewage and rainwater, annually leak about 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage - equivalent to about 33,000 backyard swimming pools - into local waterways such as the Connecticut River and Wethersfield Cove.

Under state and federal mandate to reduce that leakage, the Hartford region's sewer and water authority, the Metropolitan District Commission, is gearing up for a multimillion dollar capital improvement plan that could double or triple its debt service in the next 10 to 20 years, officials say. It's too soon to determine how much of the cost will be passed on to MDC customers.

The plan, which would cost from $610 million to $1 billion, would create separate pipes for water and sewage in Hartford, expand the capacity of the Hartford sewage treatment plant, widen pipes in other parts of the city and build underground storage tunnels to hold excess sewage and rainwater until the plant is ready to handle it.

The goal is to alleviate the problem known as "combined sewer overflows" or overflows that occur after heavy rainfalls, when the system, dating to the 19th century, is carrying more rain and sewage than it can process.

Most of the work will be done in Hartford, but the tab will be spread out among the MDC's eight member towns, where the plan, and the permission to pay for it, will soon be up for referendum.

MDC is under mandate only to clean up its connecting waterways, bringing most of them up to standards that would make them consistently swimmable or appropriate for recreation and aquatic life. But as long as they are spending money, MDC officials decided to incorporate solutions to the sewage backups that have plagued homeowners in the South End and North End of Hartford as well as sections of West Hartford and Wethersfield.

And while they're at it, they will also try to address the chronic (and legal) concerns over Wethersfield Cove, a relatively stagnant body of water in Wethersfield, that over years has been a dumping ground for overflow sewage that couldn't make it to the treatment plant.

"This is the single largest capital improvement undertaken by the agency at one time," said Bob Moore, the interim CEO of the Metropolitan District Commission. "This would be the largest amount of money spent in that short period of time." He estimated a 10- to 15-year timeline.

How much the MDC will spend has still not been settled. The most expensive solution, priced at $1 billion, calls for separating all of Hartford's storm water and sewage pipes. But the agency, in conjunction with a citizen's advisory committee, decided that the cost and the degree of disruption to local streets were prohibitive.

The agency, instead, favors a $610 million plan, saying it alleviates multiple problems for the least amount of money with the least amount of disruption.

That plan will separate storm and sewage pipes in several Hartford neighborhoods where sewage backup is most acute. It would also alleviate some problems in small sections of West Hartford and Wethersfield, where sewers and storm lines are already separate, but where some storm water - from rooftop gutters - still leaks into the sewage lines, and causes sewage backups.

Officials predict the $610 million plan would limit sewage overflows to storms heavy enough to occur about once a year. Right now the system leaks sewage about 50 rainfalls a year, said Matt Nozzolio, MDC spokesman.

But that approach has some critics in Wethersfield, where residents, including the normally parsimonious taxpayers association, say the MDC should be more ambitious. Officials there, who lined up to comment at a recent public hearing, say the sewer system should be fixed so it would overflow no more than once every 18 years. The so-called 18-year storm plan would effectively eliminate the cove as an end point for raw sewage, something that Wethersfield residents say is their ultimate goal.

"Crap in the cove, that's what we're known for," said Rocco Orsini, president of the Wethersfield Taxpayers Association. "And it hurts. It hurts deeply."

"We don't think $610 million is enough," he added. "If I'm going to spend over $600 million dollars, why not spend a little bit more?"

Moore estimates it would cost an additional $35 million to meet the added demands of Wethersfield residents, who ultimately will be involved in authorizing the MDC's plan.

If Wethersfield's proposed modifications are not included in MDC's final plan, "I can assure you that it will be defeated in the town of Wethersfield if it comes down to a vote," said Leigh Standish, a Wethersfield resident who with others sued the MDC over 20 million gallons of raw sewage the agency spilled into the cove in 1997.

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez said he favors the top-of-the-line, $1 billion plan that would separate all the sewers in Hartford. He said he endorses the cheaper plan, provided that all the areas designated in Hartford for separation be done simultaneously, rather than in phases, where one part of the city benefits and the other does not.

"I'm tired of people pitting one section of the city against another, and I'm not going to allow it," Perez said.

The MDC board still has to vote on a final plan, and after that, the approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection is required, Nozzolio said.

Then there's the question of how the plan will be paid for.

Moore said the agency hopes to cover much of the costs through federal Clean Water Act grants that are given to the state. The agency also plans to apply for low-interest loans from the state DEP.

Both the grant fund and loan funds have been reduced in recent years, as requests have increased, he said.

The ultimate cost to MDC customers "will be a function of how much money is available through state grant and loan programs and how much has to be done through separate bonding," said Moore, who worked at the state DEP, enforcing the Clean Water Act standards earlier in his career.

Moore said one of the MDC's immediate goals is to ensure that the state, in coming budget cycles, does not further reduce the amount of grant and loan funding available.

"Without that funding to the state Clean Water funds, the costs of the residents will increase," he said.

The MDC member towns are Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Newington, Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Windsor and Bloomfield.

Courant Staff Writer Jorge Amaral contributed to this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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