STAMFORD -- Residents living around the East Branch of Stamford harbor woke up Thursday morning to a swirling, stinking foamy mess of partially treated sewage all over the upper canal.
Heavy rainfall sent an unprecedented amount of wastewater rushing through Stamford's sewage treatment plant Wednesday night, overwhelming the facility's disinfection system and spilling 25 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the harbor.
Erika Lelievre, who lives with her 4-year-old daughter and husband on a 42-foot trawler at Harbor House Marina, saw sewage all over the harbor when she woke up early Thursday morning.
"It is disgusting. It was in all the slips and channel," said Lelievre, who has lived at the marina for eight years. "It has happened before, but this was the worst,"
The skies had cleared by midday Thursday, but Stamford waters remained coated in a foamy, light brown film.
Mayor David Martin visited Czescik Marina to survey the damage with Director of Health Anne Fountain, who said city officials are posting signs at beaches and marinas to alert the public that swimming, fishing and shellfishing are prohibited until further notice.
"We're very concerned about any exposure to water that has a very high bacteria count," Fountain said.
The sewage will eventually be cleaned out of the canal through natural tidal flushing, state environmental officials said.
Stamford Yacht Club Vice Commodore James Ryan said the spill shut down the first day's racing at the United States Optimist Dinghy Association's national regatta.
"It's a darn shame, and I know that that amount of rainfall causes all kinds of havoc, but to be ready to go and have something like that happen, forcing a cancellation is kind of a bummer," Ryan said. "We're hoping the next few tide cycles will clean things up for us. By tomorrow and Saturday, provided there's no more discharge, we're going to be racing."
The regatta is held on the open waters of Long Island Sound and will not take place in the contaminated waters, though the location of the Yacht Club means officials will have to find safe ways for the participants to reach that open water when the races continue.
Water Pollution Control Authority officials are still assessing the magnitude of the spill, but Executive Director Bill Brink said the harbor likely contains high levels of suspended solids -- floating material -- and fecal coliform bacteria.
Carl Bochterle, a dock master at Harbor House Marina on the East Branch, said he saw a high volume of sewage running down the channel. A large amount of sludge stuck to the docks where some people live full time on their boats.
"It stinks. It is disgusting," he said. "This is not acceptable. If a boat owner had a fuel spill causing only a fraction of the problems this spill caused, they would be held responsible and fined. Why are they not made to clean this up when they decide to discharge it down the channel?" Read Full Article
Lelievre said most people don't see what happens on the water. If something like Wednesday's sewage spill happened anywhere on land, "there would be a huge outcry," she said.
"I was watching the cormorants this morning dive for food and come out of the brown muck," she said. "So they are eating, living and breathing in it out here. Something needs to be done with the sewage being released out here."
The WPCA has been plagued by sewage spills in recent years, many of which were caused by equipment malfunctions at its facility. Wednesday's spill was not the result of an infrastructure failure, however, but rather by heavy, high-intensity rainfall.
According to the National Weather Service's station in White Plains, N.Y., more than two and one-half inches of rain fell between noon Wednesday and 8 a.m. Thursday.
Stamford has separate lines for its storm water and sewage. Rainwater enters underground piping through storm drains and flows directly into Long Island Sound, while sewage is flushed out of homes and businesses through a separate line, which carries the wastewater to the WPCA for treatment.
During significant rainstorms, however, underground pressure from heavy rainfall can cause water to seep into the sewer lines through cracks in its joints or piping. This increases the flow of wastewater into the WPCA, straining its disinfection system.
Stamford's wastewater treatment plant typically treats about 18 million gallons of sewage on an average day, and 24 million gallons on rainy days, Brink said. The facility's ultimate capacity is 58 million gallons of sewage per day, but flow levels briefly topped a record-high 73 million gallons at the height of Wednesday's rainstorm.
"It's not just how many inches of rain that comes down, it's how fast it comes down," Brink said.
The heavy flow made it impossible for the WPCA to completely treat all of the wastewater that flowed through its system late Wednesday night, causing the sewage spill visible in Stamford waters Thursday. Some sewage also spilled out of a manhole on Weed Avenue, city officials said.
"This flow exceeded anything we've seen at the plant previously," Martin said. "We're going to do a review on why there's so much extra water in the system."
The review would likely be an infiltration flow study, Brink said. WPCA officials or a private contractor would send a video camera through the city's sewer lines to identify areas where cracks are allowing water to enter the pipes.
"It's very difficult to find all the sources of infiltration," he said.
Brink said he did not know how much the study would cost, but said it would likely be expensive since Stamford has more than 100 miles of underground sewer lines.
The last big sewage spill to foul the harbor occurred in October 2012. Residents and boat owners noticed a foul stench in the water and found floating blobs of much thicker sewage all over the water, with much of it fouling boats and docks at Czescik Marina.
WPCA officials sampled the sewage and said it was decomposed and appeared to be several days old. They concluded it likely ended up in the water after being illegally dumped into a nearby storm drain by a private sewage disposal company. Police reviewed surveillance videos from buildings around the harbor and the city's operations department checked storm sewers in the area for discharges, but no one was apprehended in the matter.
In early 2012, The Advocate reviewed records provided by the Department of Aquaculture and found the WPCA bypassed partially treated or raw sewage into Stamford Harbor or Long Island Sound 26 times between March 2010 and October 2012. Some bypasses were small and contained as little as 10 gallons of raw sewage.
Marc Cohen, 67, another boating resident at the Harbor House Marina said when he peeked out of his 43-foot sailboat Thursday morning, he saw clumps of the stuff with quarter-sized globs, sometimes four inches high, floating all around his boat.
"They go after us to use our holding tanks and can't flush out heads into the Sound. If we were caught doing that they would charge us $5,000. This does happen too often. It seems every time it rains and sometimes when it doesn't rain," Cohen said. "Sewage plants should be built to accommodate any excess they can't process until they can process it."
Staff writer Maggie Gordon contributed to this report.