Flush out reasons Coast Guard missed plumbing blunder

Though it may have happened 20 years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy still needs to determine why inspectors missed a flawed plumbing installation that allowed untreated raw sewage coming from Roland Hall field house to dump into the Thames River all that time.

This is embarrassing, no doubt. Among the core missions of the Coast Guard is to enforce environmental laws in domestic waters. For the last 20 years, cadets being trained in that task were unknowingly using restrooms and showers that dumped directly into the river, 19th century style.

An assessment of the problem narrowed the source of the untreated sewage to the showers, sinks and toilets in the women’s locker room and in another locker room used by visiting teams. The Ledge Light Health District, which serves the region, estimates more than 800,000 gallons of untreated wastewater ended up in the Thames during the past two decades.

It does not appear to be an environmental disaster, thankfully. The Thames is a large tidal river. In terms of the river’s overall health, the impact is relatively inconsequential. Still, it’s not a good thing.

A spokesman explains the academy discovered the problem during a March 29 assessment of utilities in that section of the campus. According to the academy, the problem can be traced to 1997 work when a contractor cross-connected lines serving wastewater and storm drains. Instead of funneling into sewage lines, the wastewater from the locker rooms flowed with storm-water runoff into the river.

The academy has not identified the contractor.

One thing the military is known for is producing ample paperwork. There must be records that could provide a better understanding of how such a mistake happened and why the Coast Guard’s Facilities Design and Construction Center failed to detect it. Even 20 years after the fact, there may be lessons the Coast Guard could learn to prevent a future mistake.

The Day has filed a freedom of information request for access to the 1997 construction and inspection records.

Why aren’t the state or federal environmental agencies issuing fines? That’s a fair question. But, really, what would a fine accomplish? There was no intent to pollute. Academy officials acted quickly to stop the flow once they learned about it.

Rather than penalties, the focus should be on repairs and reviewing procedures so something similar cannot happen again.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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