Mismanagement led to the killing of an estimated 150 small fish in gray polluted water in Cuff Brook last summer during a project intended to rehabilitate and extend the use of the aging and decaying culvert that allows the brook’s waters to flow under Marion Road.
Cheshire’s Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission issued the environmental permits for the project. Leaders of the Town’s Public Works Department were responsible for ensuring the requirements were being followed.
“This is basically almost like a marriage where trust breaks down because one of the parties fail to meet an obligation. It’s going to take a lot of work to gain it back,” said Robert deJongh, who chairs the Wetlands panel.
Public Works officials received a notice of violation from the state Department of Energy and Environment Protection in October, and the Town now faces fines of up to $125,000.
DEEP spokeswoman Kristina Rozek said in a Dec. 20 email the matter “remains under investigation and review.”
But before that state notification came, the Town’s environmental planner issued a separate cease-and-desist order, halting the project for violating wetlands permit stipulations. The permit required controls to prevent soil erosion and the flow of water through the culvert during the project.
Photos taken by Town Engineering Technician Michael Caffrey while work was in progress clearly showed contractors spraying a concrete-fiberglass mixture onto the culvert lining while standing in a flowing stream of water.
On July 23, several days after the fish kill, Cheshire Environmental Planner Suzanne Simone issued a notice of violation to Department of Public Works Director George Noewatne, ordering all work on the culvert be stopped. A week later, Public Works officials and leaders from National Water Main Cleaning Co., the contractor on the project, received a notice to attend a show cause hearing before the Wetlands panel.
“The problem arose when you have a paid employee, onsite, overseeing the project. He was appointed to be the site inspector. Here he is overseeing the project, taking pictures of the violation and not taking steps to shut the project down and notify the Town,” deJongh said. “The Town would not have been notified had it not been for a vigilant neighbor to call it to the attention of the state.”
In fact, the alert the Wetlands panel received regarding the project had come via DEEP, deJongh and others said.
During the Wetlands panel’s Nov. 7 meeting, deJongh told Noewatne directly the relationship between the Commission and Public Works “has been damaged” as a result of how the project and the permit were managed.
“We trust and hope that Public Works will go the extra mile to restore that faith,” deJongh said. “I think it will take longer than perhaps you guys would like. It's just the situation we're dealing with right now.”
Noewatne, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, would state later during that same meeting, “I understand we have to come back and earn the trust of the Commission. We absolutely will do that, or I will not be here anymore ... I will submit my resignation if this ever happens again. That's how much I take it seriously.”
The project would remain unfinished, throughout the next few months, until Nov. 7 — when the Wetlands panel approved a new permit allowing the project to continue. The permit came with new stipulations, including that an outside consultant with engineering credentials oversee the project.
But it only took a few days before Public Works officials would receive another notice of violation — for failing to convene a pre-construction meeting with IWWC staff, failing to notify the Commission that work would resume on the project and for allowing that work to resume “without the required supervision” of a third party engineer, according to a notice dated Nov 13.
During the show cause hearings, Public Works and National Water Main Cleaning Co. leaders expressed remorse over the incident and the failures to adhere to the permit requirements.
During those hearings, Wetlands panel members did not mince words in conveying their disappointment with the Public Works Department.
In particular, members took issue with the fact that Caffrey had been at the site on July 17-18, taking photographs that documented the permit violations as they were occurring, but not taking action to halt the project.
Email correspondence showed Town officials were aware workers had been violating permit stipulations at the time, but did not enforce adhering to those stipulations.
A review of the personnel files for Noewatne and Caffrey showed no disciplinary action has been taken in connection with the project.
Cheshire Town Manager Sean M. Kimball, in an email, said the Town's “investigation into this matter from a standpoint is ongoing pending the results of the DEEP review.”
Kimball noted Caffrey had supervised a similar project for a previous employer. He wrote Caffrey “was given responsibility for the daily inspection and oversight of this project.”
“Mr. Caffrey had authority to stop the work at any time, and took responsibility for his failure to do so at the August IWWC meeting,” Kimball said.
The cost of hiring the outside engineering firm, Milone and Macbroom, to provide an engineering assessment of the project's revised plans and to then supervise its completion, was around $16,000.
Kimball said that despite that additional cost, the overall project cost still was expected to be $39,000 under-budget.
Meanwhile, DEEP officials are weighing whether to penalize the Town for the environmental violations. DEEP has the authority to levy fines up to $25,000 for each day the violations had occurred.