Naugatuck River raw sewage spill one year later

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It’s been one year.

On Columbus Day weekend 2017, environmental activist Kevin Zak discovered something seriously wrong in the Naugatuck River. He found hundreds of dead fish in the water and took pictures of the situation. That triggered an outcry from many people in many towns along the river wondering what was going on?

“It was shocking,” Zak said.

What was even more shocking was the cause of all of those fish dying — 5 million gallons of raw sewage that spilled from Waterbury’s waste water treatment plant into the Naugatuck River.

“It was like walking in a toilet bowl,” said Zak.

One year later though, Zak is happy to be singing a different tune.

“Look at that water, it’s beautiful,” he said.

Zak has fought for years to keep the Naugatuck River clean. He runs a non-profit called The Naugatuck River Revival Group. He says in the one year since the spill, the city has stepped up to address the problem.

An investigation determined the spill happened when an outside contractor accidentally cut a cable during plant upgrades. That caused a five-hour power failure and over all that time, all that raw sewage spilled out. Since then, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has decided to turn over management of the plant to a private, international company.

“This company is in 191 countries,” the mayor said. “They’ve got thousands of employees across the globe who are experts in this field.”

Zak says that’s one key move that’s been made. 

“When it’s taken out of bureaucratic hands and your employees are likely to be better-trained they have more resources to deal with emergencies,” Zak said. “And that’s what happened. It was a serious emergency.”

Zak says another good move by the mayor was starting a River Brigade — a group of teens the city hired over the summer to clean up the Naugatuck River. They ended up hauling huge piles of debris out of the river, including old machinery and factory parts.

“It was an outstanding success,” said Zak, who helped to oversee the program.

He also says another positive development has been the establishment of a new state law that requires city and town leaders to be told immediately of raw sewage spills so they can quickly notify the public. That didn’t happen in this case because Mayor O’Leary says the plant manager didn’t notify him of the severity of the spill until five days later.

As a result, the plant manager was reassigned and the mayor hired an outside firm to take over plant operations.

The city also restocked the river with scores of fish.

“A lot of changes have occurred in the past year,” Zak said.

Because of those changes, he feels better about the future of the river he loves.

‘I’m extremely encouraged and excited,” Zak said. “A lot of the river has come back. A lot of wildlife has come back.” 

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