NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)– Miles of waterfront in six towns were all off-limits to swimming and fishing this week. The reason – two million gallons of raw sewage went into the Mill River on Monday.
That meant no swimming or fishing in Hamden, New Haven, West Haven, East Haven, Branford, Guilford, or Madison. Officials predicted the closures would last a couple of days.
On Thursday, several towns released announcements of their beaches reopening.
West Haven released a message on the Citizen Alert System notifying residents the city’s Director of Health had reopened the city’s three miles of public beaches. They will be back open to the public on Friday, July 10.
“The water quality samples tested in the wake of this week’s New Haven sewage spill were ‘within acceptable limits to open the beaches,'” the alert said.
Madison announced its beaches and shellfish beds are also reopened to the public Thursday after the Dept. of Public Health water samples came back.
Guilford announced Thursday, too, Jacobs beach is reopen to the public for swimming.
On Friday, East Haven announced after water quality testing, the water was once again safe for swimming and fishing.
New Haven’s mayor says the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority reported a sewage spill Monday, but he says he was not told how big a spill they were dealing with. Two million gallons of raw sewage came out a collapsed 50-year-old pipe on Whitney Avenue in Hamden.
“There was a major collapse of the top of the pipe, which fell into the pipe, which then prevented any flow from getting down the pipe there so then came up on the ground and was running down Whitney Avenue,” explained Gary Zrelak of the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority at a New Haven City Hall press conference Wednesday.
It happened just downhill from the Eli Whitney Museum. Also right there is the Mill River, and that’s where most of that sewage went. Then it flowed down into New Haven Harbor and into the Long Island Sound, dispersing into the water along several shoreline towns.
As if that was not bad enough, some people did not hear about the Monday morning spill until Wednesday morning, and in that time some went for a swim in potentially polluted water.
Retired pediatrician Dr. Joseph Zelson often leads a group of distance swimmers in laps around a picturesque Branford cove. He did just that Wednesday morning.
“As we were finishing our swim, the announcement came over someone’s phone that the beaches are closed and you shouldn’t be in the water,” Zelson said.
That warning came a little late to help Zelson and his swimmers steer clear of potentially dangerous bacteria.
Doctor Zelson says he and his swimmers are not feeling sick, but he spent decades as the Health Director for the town of Orange and knows what should happen in an emergency like that.
“There are ways that they can notify people quickly. There was no sign on the beach here,” said Zelson. “Notification should have happened much, much, much, much quicker.”
Casey Gaughn works for the New Haven Land Trust. News 8 caught up with her Thursday cleaning up the area around the Long Wharf Nature Preserve. No one told her about the spill Monday or that there was concern it contaminated the Sound.
“I was considering just rinsing my hands off in the ocean before I had lunch,” she told News 8.
Keeper of the Sound Bill Lucey says his organization, Save the Sound, is not happy that residents weren’t immediately told of the spill.
“It’s still potentially a risk. And you’ve got hepatitis, you have all these PFAS chemicals, you have pharmaceuticals that are in the sewage, you have all kinds of contaminants.”
He, like Zelson, wants better notifications. Lucey says he wants mandated notification any time a spill occurs.
“They have this in the state of New York,” Lucey explained. “When they have a spill, I get a notification on my cell phone. If I’m planning on going out fishing that day or kayaking or even throwing a ball for my dog to go retrieve in the water I’m aware that it’s not a good idea to do that day.”
Mill River remains closed. The State Department of Environmental Protection says would be testing the water at Silver Sands in Milford and Hammanassett in Madison for any contaminants.
If you were in the water earlier this week and you start to feel nauseous, vomiting you should call your doctor.
Many beachgoers, including 9-year-old Ariella Cruz, were also upset by the news Wednesday.
“This is my first time at the beach,” she said. “I’ve never gotten to go in salt water before.”
A fisherman told News 8 he, too, was furious because he had been fishing in the water and was unaware of the spill.
“It makes me angry that I have to find out via Facebook,” New Haven resident, Leon Ortiz, said. “No notices to doors, no emails, mail… nothing. There’s about 20 people over there, and they were all fishing and they kept the fish. I would not keep the fish at all. Throw it back till the water gets clean.”
Bill Brown heads the Eli Whitney Museum located right down the embankment from the burst pipe. The sewage lapped right up to his doorstep.
“I suspect there will be parts of this that will linger for longer than what you can see physically,” he said.
However, he credits the New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority for its quick response to build a 2,000-foot bypass around the collapse. East Rock residents of New Haven and surrounding communities said they were the last to know the extent of the spill. Even New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said he was unaware of how bad the spill was.
“I was walking my dog yesterday at 7 p.m. and a car stopped on the road with a canoe on top of it and some kids came out and said, ‘Hey there’s a bunch of dead fish in the water, there’s a sheen on the water a mile up the river,’ and that made me realize this was a much bigger problem.”
The Water Pollution Control authority said it notified state DEEP immediately, adding that crews are working with the city to have a better plan moving forward.
Officials say to not go near the water until bacteria levels get back down to normal.