Courtesy of Save the Sound

Save the Sound, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the environmental conservation of the Long Island Sound, is suing the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority for polluting local waterways during a sewage spill last summer.

In July 2020, an estimated 2.1 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Mill River from Whitney Avenue, spilling out into the Long Island Sound. The spill, which lasted for around 16 hours, was due to the corrosion of a pipe segment from the Whitney Avenue Pressure Sewer. 

Save the Sound’s investigation alleges that the water control authority knew of the pipe corrosion since “at least 2014” but failed to act appropriately. The organization further alleged that the authority failed to conduct a “standard inspection and cleaning program for large diameter pipes,” which is required by the authority’s operating procedure. According to Save the Sound, the last inspection of the pipes occurred in 2015.

“Poor maintenance of pipes caused this massive spill and threatens others, and undermines those taxpayer investments,” Curt Johnson, president of Save the Sound, wrote in a press release

Save the Sound seeks to use the lawsuit to curb what they described as “continuing violations” of the Clean Water Act, which prevents parties from discharging pollutants into “navigable” territory — waters of the United States that include territorial seas. The organization notified the authority of its intent to file a suit on Nov. 16. The authority did not respond during the 60-day response period, leading Save the Sound to officially file a lawsuit.

Neither the authority nor defense attorney Glenn Santoro responded to multiple requests for comment.

According to Save the Sound, the lawsuit aims to protect the “public health and safety” of the residents and marine life in the area. Katherine Fiedler, the plaintiff’s attorney, said residents in the affected area often take part in swimming, boating and subsistence fishing on Mill River and the sound. Fiedler said parts of Save the Sound’s concerns include the fact that residents were not notified of the spill until almost 48 hours after the spill.  

In July’s spill, a hole was found in the pipe which could lead debris and rocks to fall through and block the flow of sewage. The hole caused a sewer main to collapse, leading sewage to flow out of the ground and onto Whitney Avenue in Hamden, down a hill and into storm drains that led to nearby Mill River. Mill River flows into the Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary. 

Hamden does not have combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, which mix sewage with stormwater and dilute the waste in the sewers. The sewage involved in this spill was undiluted raw sewage with a much higher concentration of human waste and other pollutants.

Save the Sound’s Long Island Soundkeeper Bill Lucey, who works to protect the water quality, fish and wildlife of the sound, explained that the nutrients in sewage, namely nitrogen, can cause the plankton and algae communities in the water to experience a growth in population, creating harmful concentrations known as algal blooms.

“It’s a big nutrient soup,”  Lucey told the News. 

When these plants die, they sink to the bottom of the water and get consumed by bacteria living in the sediments. The bacteria require a higher level of dissolved oxygen to break down the plankton and algae, thus draining oxygen from the water — which is harmful to marine life that relies on oxygen to live.

Also, according to Lucey, harmful nutrients make their way into the sound on numerous occasions over the years, often due to spills like the one in July but also through sewage overflows. The overall loss of oxygen due to the high nutrient concentration can lead to a strained aquatic community and dying fish.

“Obviously, aquatic life likes oxygen so when oxygen levels are zero or low, it causes a lot of stress to the system,” Lucey said.

If the case goes in favor of Save the Sound, the water control authority would be required to carry out an inventory tally and assessment of its large diameter pipes to prove it has reduced the risk of future spills. The authority would also need to expand its hydrogen sulfide awareness program, which aims to educate the public about the potential toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide, and pay a civil penalty of up to $56,460 each day that it violated federal Clean Water Act guidelines. It would also be responsible for “restoring the quality of the Mill River and Long Island Sound.”

As of Thursday, the authority has yet to file a response to the litigation. Fiedler said Save The Sound is hopeful that the authority can provide a resolution before they move forward with litigation.

“We have a strong claim of an ongoing violation of that federal environmental law and certainly enough evidence to show that there was not only a big misstep of not following up with previous issues that were identified in 2014 but also programs that are lacking that could mean that there are other issues in the system that are unresolved,” Fiedler told the News. 

Fiedler said that she does not yet have a timeline for the court proceedings but that she plans to have continued conversations with the authority.

The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, a predecessor organization of Save the Sound, was founded in 1978.

Sai Rayala |

Razel Suansing | 

Sai Rayala reports on Yale-New Haven relations. She previously covered climate and environmental efforts in New Haven. Originally from Powell, Ohio, she is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College majoring in History.
Razel Suansing is a staff reporter and producer for the City, YTV, and Magazine desks. She covers cops and courts, specifically state criminal justice reform efforts, the New Haven Police Department, and the Yale Police Department. Originally from Manila, Philippines, she is a first-year in Davenport College, majoring in Global Affairs.