Waterbury mayor speaks out about raw sewage spill into the Naugatuck River

New Haven

WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) — Pictures of dozens of dead fish found in the Naugatuck River have generated feelings of outrage among many people.

“Sad, angry, mad that it happened,” said Kera Brown of Seymour. Brown and her boyfriend love to fish in the river. They couldn’t believe it when they saw pictures of the dead fish on Facebook, posted by Kevin Zak, founder of the non-profit Naugatuck River Revival Group.

“It was like walking in a toilet bowl,” Zak said. “We saw lots of solid waste on rocks that were just the size of footballs.”

Five million gallons of raw sewage from Waterbury’s waste water treatment plant gushed into the Naugatuck River on Oct. 9th. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary says the city has started an investigation.

He spoke with News 8 in a one-on-one interview. We asked him the question Kera and many other people are asking: How did this happen?

The mayor says an outside contractor, working on upgrades to the plant, cut a live power cable.

“Something went wrong there,” the mayor said. “When that happened, the generators kicked on, but then there was a power surge and the power surge knocked out the fuses, which ultimately made the generators ineffective so I don’t know why that happened, so we’re going to determine that. Eversource was really great and they responded really quickly and they did what they needed to do to fix the breakers.”Original Story: Power failure blamed for untreated sewage spill

While that was going on, workers inside the plant were concerned about the plant possibly getting flooded so they opened a valve.

“Unfortunately, time was ticking and as time was going by, sewage was going into the river,” Mayor O’Leary said.

Five hours went by and five million gallons of raw sewage ended up in the river.

“I feel awful about it,” the mayor said. “I know the residents of Waterbury feel awful about it.”

Many have voiced their displeasure on social media. Some people accuse the mayor of trying to cover this up and sweep it under the rug. News 8 took those allegations to Mayor O’Leary — here’s how he responded.

“We had been in conversation with DEEP, not only from the initial notification but we did an electronic notification,” the mayor said. “Those policies and protocols were followed, which, by the way, put in place by the state of Connecticut. So I know people can write whatever they want to write so unfortunately you kind of get that mojo going and it’s hard to combat that misinformation so I’m happy to do this interview with you today to say the city of Waterbury made all of the notifications it needed to make statutorily as soon as the spill happened and continued to do so throughout the week.”

But to the public, the only notification they saw were yellow fliers posted on trees along the river. The mayor is facing criticism that there could’ve been a better and more efficient way to alert the public. Here’s his response to that:
“This has never happened – ever — to the city,” Mayor O’Leary said. “And I think that some of our policies and protocols could have been — could be updated, if you will — about informing residents.”
People also wonder if the equipment at the plant was faulty.

“We’ll determine if our equipment was up to speed and up to snuff or should it be replaced or should it have been replaced sooner, was the maintenance schedule kept?,” he said.
The mayor says his city notified DEEP immediately about the situation and the city has dispatched cleaning crews to try and pick up much of the waste in the water. Bacteria level tests have also been going on.

Zak says the mayor has been a good friend to the Naugatuck River over the years, helping his fight to keep it clean.  He awaits the findings of the city’s investigation.  The mayor says he hopes it lasts no more than a couple of weeks.
“We were very saddened by the accident — and that’s what it was. It was a construction accident that tripped a power line that then tripped some breakers and then shut down the sewage plant and then a significant amount of raw sewage ended up in the Naugatuck River.”
“At the end of the day, I feel confident that we are looking at this objectively, and we will be very transparent and report out accordingly when we find out what happened,” he said.

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