Fuel leak at heart of lawsuit

Preston - Southeast Area Transit has filed a lawsuit against the state that argues the state Department of Transportation is solely responsible for a diesel fuel leak at SEAT's Route 12 facility. Initial estimates of the cleanup are at least $1.4 million.

SEAT's board of directors last June voted to file the lawsuit and seek $795,443 from the state to cover environmental assessment and remediation costs, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information request made by The Day.

The suit argues that SEAT's underground fuel storage system, installed by the DOT, was to blame for the leak. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which has taken over the cleanup, estimated the leak at 90,000 gallons. SEAT's general manager and the chairman of its board of directors have disputed this figure, saying the amount is much smaller.

The leak was discovered in August 2010, and DEEP officials estimated that it started at least two years before its detection. SEAT claims it began anywhere between six and 10 years before its discovery.

SEAT operates out of a DOT-owned building across from the former Norwich Hospital property. The state in 2011 provided SEAT with more than $3 million - about half of its funding, according to a recent audit.

The transit district provides bus service to nine towns in the region. It has recently been criticized by various town officials, including many in Waterford, who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the service and the lack of information provided by its staff on ridership in the area.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick declined comment on the lawsuit, although in January he said the loss of potentially 90,000 gallons of fuel and the fact that the release went undetected for so long was a red flag for the department.

SEAT General Manager Ella Bowman could not be reached for comment. Bowman in recent months has argued the fuel leak was undetectable because it released in small daily increments that were not noticeable.

Jaroslaw "Jerry" Pizunski, president of the SEAT drivers' union, said the company's drivers complained to Bowman for months about the smell of diesel fuel behind the SEAT facility. Bowman has denied this claim.

SEAT has also been sued for $415,000 by United Oil Recovery Inc. United claims the transit service did not pay for remediation costs after it realized the scope of the fuel leak. Court records show that SEAT has argued in the case that the DOT, as the owner of its building, is solely responsible for the leak.

An audit showed that SEAT's net assets dropped by nearly $500,000 in the most recent fiscal year. It paid $464,124 in fuel cleanup costs.

Officials from SEAT's nine towns met in April in a closed session with DOT Commissioner James Redeker to discuss the ongoing lawsuit. No votes or public discussion ensued.

SEAT's member towns are East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Montville, New London, Norwich, Stonington and Waterford.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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