|Students from the local aquaculture high school collecting water samples with teacher Holly Turner (foreground) and salvage diver Kevin Blagys (at rear), who volunteered many hours gathering water and seaweed samples. Photo: Melanie Stengel, Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Click to enlarge.|
FEJ StoryLog: Grant Gives Reporter Time To Immerse in Sewage Story
By Christine Woodside
Early in my reporting days, I watched a sewage plant manager place a jar of water on a table before the town council of Ledyard, Conn. The jar held wastewater, effluent from the plant he’d been hired to clean up. A sample from a few months earlier looked like mud. The water in this jar was clear.
So I visited him at the plant for a story. He showed me the settling pools, sprayers and screens that, when working, helped sewage biologically break down over many hours.
I was stunned at the sewage-treatment underworld. Here rushed the most universal excretions of the human race. I wanted to know why these facilities malfunctioned, why they were so hidden and ugly, and why they cost so much.
But, there wasn’t time for that story back then.
Later, in the early 2000s, I wrote about the Connecticut River through the eyes of “pipe 9,” an enormous combined sewage overflow, or CSO, discharge point in Holyoke, Mass., that carries waste directly into the Connecticut River during storms, bypassing sewage treatment. A canoe could fit in that pipe.
That story pushed me a bit closer to the heart of a problem facing many U.S. cities and one with no quick solution.
The grant meant I could spend close to 100 hours
over four months investigating Connecticut’s
sewage problems by looking closely at one plant.
A mixture of untreated and partially treated sewage wastes and storm water draining from rooftops and pavements regularly spews into rivers and Long Island Sound. These discharges are legal and, under the current regulatory scenario for most cities, will continue for decades.
My jaw has dropped in amazement about this for a long time. Did my readers feel the same horror I did?
So when I heard that the Society of Environmental Journalists winter 2018-2019 round of Fund for Environmental Journalism grants were earmarked for stories focused on stormwater, I applied and won for a reporting project for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. C-HIT is edited by fellow SEJ member Lynne DeLucia and circulates its stories through all the major media outlets in Connecticut.
The grant meant I could spend close to 100 hours over four months investigating Connecticut’s sewage problems by looking closely at one plant.
And grant funds meant C-HIT could hire photographer Melanie Stengel and graphic designer Wes Rand for my project. Stengel’s photos captured people interacting with the polluted water. Rand’s map illustrated how close industry, recreation and sewage treatment are situated on the narrow inlet.
Shaping the sewage overflow narrative
Connecticut’s cities have struggled for years to keep untreated sewage from waterways by separating stormwater and other runoff from the sewage. Nine cities so far have addressed this problem.
But four cities — Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Norwich — still have combined sewer systems. (New Haven is separating pipes with a completion date of 2036. Hartford is building enormous underground holding tanks to make it through storms.)
In these four cities, almost every time it rains, toilet and household wastewater mixed with a soup of runoff — which has coursed over pavement and collected dissolved dog poop, trash, oil residues and chemicals — pours into rivers or Long Island Sound. In many places this happens with only 0.4 inches of precipitation.
I wanted to write a narrative that laid out the problem
as deeply as I could, told from the vantage point of
residents who live near sewage overflow areas.
I wanted to write a narrative that laid out the problem as deeply as I could, told from the vantage point of residents who live near sewage overflow areas. I sought to capture their confusion and frustration with on-the-ground description.
I opted to select one sewage plant and one neighborhood with overflows to illustrate the problem and to keep the story to a manageable size. I spent a few weeks perusing the public database of sewage overflows from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP. This online resource, required by a 2012 state law, provided maps of every overflow pipe and plant in the state.
I noticed that the larger of the two plants serving Bridgeport — Connecticut’s largest city — had overflows of millions of gallons regularly in the preceding year or so. I learned that the plant sits in western Bridgeport’s close-knit neighborhood of Black Rock.
The facility discharges treated wastewater (and during storms partially treated wastewater, called bypasses) from Bridgeport and nearby towns into Black Rock Harbor next to boat slips and beneath the deck of a popular restaurant.
The main discharge pipe is situated near public beaches and a famous waterfront called Seaside Park. The city has until 2039 to fix the overflow problems.
Bad days at Black Rock
Black Rock was the perfect story frame. There, I found recreation, industry and a school, all trying to coexist with an old, malfunctioning sewage treatment plant.
I also found local people who were tired of ugly brown discharges due to equipment problems, no-swimming signs and bad smells wafting around boats and restaurants. They were appalled, angry and ready to become activists.
|Water near the outflow pipe in Black Rock Harbor. Photo: Melanie Stengel, Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Click to enlarge.|
The year before I showed up, one of them had photographed a particularly unsightly sewage overflow near a yacht club’s docks, and residents had organized and joined a regional water quality study. Teenagers were collecting water samples with adult volunteers and their teacher, starting before dawn every two weeks.
Black Rock is a close-knit neighborhood of about 24,000 people crowded on a peninsula at Bridgeport’s western end. It hosts the larger of two sewage treatment plants in Bridgeport.
Treated waste pours out its six-foot-diameter discharge pipe into narrow Black Rock Harbor, which people call a dead-end harbor because it once was the outflow of a stream system but now is blocked by Interstate-95. During storms or equipment failures, the plant also releases partially treated waste. Those discharges are called bypasses.
When the flow of waste and rainwater overwhelms the capacity of the plant, as it does several times a year, untreated sewage flows out of CSO pipes directly into the harbor. Because the harbor is narrow and the tides move slowly here, the discharge sluggishly works its way to the open water of Long Island Sound over many hours.
The CSOs and bypasses are legal because of negotiated delays in Clean Water Act compliance — and will likely remain so for decades.
Every 10 days, on average, untreated sewage flows into the harbor, according to July 2014-July 2019 data from DEEP. Over that five-year period, CSO pipes overflowed 99 times, and the West Side plant bypassed partially treated waste 85 times. Overflows from the CSO pipes range between 100,000 gallons and 500,000 gallons. The legal bypasses from the plant ranged from one million to 16 million gallons.
How my reporting unfolded
I took day-long reporting trips to Black Rock at least a dozen times between late March and late July 2019.
I started by scouting the neighborhood and walking the perimeter of the enormous West Side plant. Days later, I was sitting in the Water Pollution Control Authority’s document room at their other plant, reading through the long-term control plan by then several years old. Soon after, I drove photographer Melanie Stengel down for a look. Stengel and I visited the plant and toured its settling tanks on April 1.
I read hundreds of pages of sewage plans and related documents at the Water Pollution Control Authority and through other channels. A month or so into the project, an activist who heads a local conservation group shared a searchable PDF of the major document, the long-term control plan.
I made a point of hanging out in Black Rock. I drank iced tea on the deck of Captain’s Cove restaurant, which overlooks the main outflow pipe of the sewage plant. I tagged along with the citizen scientists collecting water samples by boat. I sought out all of the overflow pipes with the help of diver/boat cleaner Kevin Blagys. I wandered around the docks, streets, beaches and markets.
My many hours in Black Rock gave me
a sense of the residents’ anxieties and
the enormity of the project to stop overflows.
My many hours in Black Rock gave me a sense of the residents’ anxieties and the enormity of the project to stop overflows. I saw firsthand how frustrated the Black Rock residents and students were at an April 11 public meeting organized by City Councilman Peter Spain. There was no time for people to ask questions after a long presentation by a state sewage engineer about the 20-year time frame for reversing pollution.
I spotted the dive-boat operator Blagys sitting quietly in the back, holding a speech he had no time to read. Blagys cleaned boats in a dive suit for his job. He was ready to give back. He volunteered to coordinate a water collection effort in a pollution study.
Later, in May and June, I was in boats four times, three of them at dawn with volunteer citizen scientists who regularly collected water samples for the Unified Water Study that Bridgeport joined in 2019.
On Blagys’ boat, I found and photographed several of the CSO pipes. I gradually got to know Blagys, teacher Holly Turner and three student volunteers from Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture School, which overlooks Black Rock Harbor.
They told me what they saw day to day. They shared their dedication to making things better and their feelings of despair.
I went back twice in late June and, well into writing my drafts, I finally returned in late July, cruising around with Blagys in his boat to find all of the active CSO pipes.
All of this immersed me in the problem that has occupied my reporting mind for decades. But it was the opportunity provided by the FEJ grant that allowed me the time in Bridgeport, returning repeatedly over so many months to understand how people who live near a problem can band together and become activists.
[Editor’s Note: Find Woodside’s three-part series at C-HIT.org].
Christine Woodside writes about the history of ordinary Americans and the environment. She is the environment writer for C-HIT.org, the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Her 2016 book, “Libertarians on the Prairie,” is about the lives and collaboration of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, and her next book will be about New Jersey tenant farmers. Woodside is the editor of Appalachia journal, America’s longest-running mountaineering and adventure journal. She earned a master’s degree in history in 2019 and sometimes teaches journalism courses at the University of Connecticut. She also edits environment stories for The Conversation. Woodside lives in Deep River, Conn. and has been a member of SEJ since the late 1990s.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.