United Illuminating finally met with neighbors of its polluted former power plant — and offered a mix of news and no-news about its ongoing clean-up.
That happened a public meeting the electric utility held Monday night at John Martinez School about its $30 million remediation of the contaminated 8.9-acre English Station site on Ball Island off Grand Avenue at the Mill River western gateway to Fair Haven.
City officials and members of the City Plan Commission had pressed UI to hold the meeting. The commissioners last month said they would not approve UI’s soil erosion, sediment control and other plans, in the run-up to their beginning to haul out toxic waste, without the public’s first being provided with an update
Those owners — limited-liability corporations controlled by Kew Gardens, N.Y.-based David Tropper: Haven River Properties, which owns the parcel near to Grand Avenue; and Paramount View Millennium, which own Ball Island and the iconic station — did not show up at Monday night’s meeting. So neighbors received no word on what developers actually envisioning putting on the property after UI’s completion of the environmental mess.
UI officials did show up to offer details on that clean-up. That told neighbors that the Grand Avenue-side buildings of the contaminated site are half roofless and so far deteriorated that nothing can save them from demolition. Even if you grabbed a brick for a memory, there might be PCBs or other bad stuff on it.
A large portion of the soil on site is likely going to be be PCB-cleaned to a higher than the ten-parts-per-million industrial standard – more like a residential one-part-per-million standard, UI reported.
UI, which agreed to pay for the clean-up as part of its sale to Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, has a web site devoted to English Station remediation. But it had not held an in-person public info sessionfor a year and ahalf.
Monday night 40 people — neighbors and members of community management teams, the Environmental Advisory Council and other local watchdog groups — heard UI Project Manager Shawn Crosbie and Carl Stopper, a project manager with the engineering company TRC, give a detailed report of the clean-up’s work-in-progress since it began in August 2016.
The highlights, scheduled to appear on the UI site, in more detail, within days, included this data on work completed so far:
• removal of 50,000 bags of asbestos waste
• 10,000 soil samples taken
• 1,400 concrete samples
• 4,300 building material samples
• 33 groundwater wells sampled
• Station B (the original English Station power plant) concrete remediation
• three reports to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)
• four going-forward remedial action plans.
Crosbie and engineer Stopper said crews have found lots of PCBs in the soil, and bad metals like lead and arsenic — “what you’d expect from an old industrial site,” Stopper said. So far there have been no accidents and no detectable leaching either into ground water or into the Mill River, the reported.
If approved by the DEEP, plans going forward call for the ground remediation of the parcel running from Grand Avenue to Ball Island, to a residential standard, one part PCB per million. Many in the audience feared the ten parts per million industrial standard would obtain for the whole site, but that would apply only to the land around the original Ball Island plant, the speakers said.
Once that level of clean-up has been achieved, then “Connecticut remediation [standards] call for four feet of clean fill or two feet of asphalt [capping] to prevent human exposure,” added Marya Mahoney, UI’s environmental inspection staffer.
The report did not allay ongoing anxiety about remediation issues or outright sadness at the planned demolition of the 1920s buildings on Grand Avenue.
“Why does it have to be destroyed? I see a lot of this in New Haven. A few bricks fall down, and then the building goes,” asked local preservationist Robert Greenberg.
There followed a long discussion about who was responsible for what amounts to a demolition by neglect.
“The city assessed that it needs to be torn down,” said Crosbie. Stopper said that demolition was not in the original plans of his team in the summer of 2016. Since then, however, the elements and the age of the structure, without care, have resulted in what City Building Official Jim Turcio, who as at the meeting, said, was a 50 percent roofless structure, with many of the brick walls remaining erect only perilously.
Greenberg asked if the English Station plant on Ball Island might be spared the same fate, because to him it has the potential to be like London’s Tate Modern, a great gallery space.
“That could be an option,” said Crosbie.
“I can’t say,” he added, reiterating that UI is in it, per a formal Partial Consent Order (PCO) negotiated with the government, to clean up from Grand Avenue to the bulkhead at the southern end of Ball Island, not to develop it.
Stopper said remediation of the plant itself — removal of concrete pieces and other elements that are PCB-contaminated, replacement and sealing of other elements that might contain contaminants — will be done to “high occupancy standards.”
That means that a future developer can move in safely in an as-is, post-remediation condition, he said, However, if he or she wants to re-develop the space, and break walls or remove, for example, any of the 14 huge boilers that are the centerpiece of the interior, then additional remediation concerns arise.
Local activist Chris Ozyck termed “admirable” the standard to which UI is cleaning up the PCBs from the soil on site. “But about when the tide goes out? How will you know the water around the station is safe to fish and to boat?” he asked
“The PCO does not include anything in the river,” said Crosbie.
“PCBs don’t usually leach,” added Stopper. “They stay in the soil. The entire site is surrounded by a 20-foot bulkhead that goes deep into the river. It’s been inspected and it’s in good condition, with interlocking sheets of steel, there’s no opportunity for sediments to leak out.”
“Do you feel comfortable fishing there?” asked Fair Haven Community Management Team board member Kimberly Acosta.
“The Mill River is big,” Crosbie replied.
“Our PCO [mandate] is within the bulkhead,” he repeated.
Stopper conceded that the site is in a flood zone and the bulkhead’s integrity is of vital importance. Yet “a wave intrusion would not migrate to the site. In a large storm, the bulkhead could be over-topped,” he said.
Yet in Super Storm Sandy, he added, “We didn’t observe any erosion.”
The elephant in the room appeared toward the end of the discussion.
“I’m puzzled regarding the new owners. Shouldn’t they be part of the discussion?” asked activist Aaron Goode.
Yale architecture professor Elihu Rubin clarified the nature of the problem: “You say you have a strict PCO. Yet we may end up with the building and the water still a problem. In the future, it’d be helpful if the owner of the site were here, if there were a single voice.”
New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said such clarification and better communication might have resulted in the 1920s buildings on Grand Avenue being saved.
“It would have been good for the public to know, in 2016 ... that there was a problem with the roof, so choices could be made. We’d now like assurance that as remediation continues at English Station, if something emerges, let us know. There are things that could be done to stabilize during the remediation process.”
UI Manager for Outreach Samantha Marone said the company is committed to alerting the city to precisely that should a problem emerge.
She promised to convey the gathering’s concern that the owners become involved in the public conversation and ideally appear at the next information update session.
No date has been set for that, although, with the public meeting now complete, UI is set to re-present its soil erosion, sediment control, and other plans before City Plan on March 20.
Crosbie also said that UI, which originally forecast the three-year clean up to end this summer, is asking for an extension to the end of 2019 in order to complete the work.