State pledges to help Old Lyme fund possible $17M sewer shortfall
Old Lyme ― State officials trying to fix environmental problems that have plagued the town’s beach communities for more than a decade are now saying there could be $17 million in state and federal grants for the work.
Graham Stevens, chief of water protection and land reuse for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) said in a Monday phone interview that the agency is “committed to trying to find a solution” to the pollution attributed to shoreline septic systems.
The announcement comes as three beach associations and the town’s Sound View neighborhood struggle with how to pay for the installation of sewers estimated at more than $50 million. The project has been identified as the best way to satisfy an order from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to clean up groundwater pollution identified as a threat to drinking water and the Long Island Sound.
Officials blame the COVID-19 pandemic, with the resulting supply chain disruptions and inflation, for dramatically increasing the project’s cost.
Stevens said the pandemic effect is evident in one of the most expensive parts of the project: a pump station and force main that would be shared by the four communities to sends their wastewater to New London.
The disappointing and prolonged bidding process in 2021 contributed to what he described as a $12 million to $17 million funding shortfall for the work.
Old Colony Beach Club Association Board of Governors Chairman Douglas Whalen said $17 million in grants would bring costs in line with what those in the affected beach areas agreed to fund years ago through bonding.
Representatives from the DEEP and the state Office of the Treasurer informed the beach communities and town officials of its commitment to seek additional funding at a meeting last week. State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, and state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, were in attendance.
The meeting was first reported by the online Connecticut Examiner news outlet.
“We wanted to assure the communities we’re here to work as a partner to try to help them with their financial gap,” Stevens said.
In the phone call with The Day, the water protection chief hedged that officials hope the shortfall in funding “is not at the top end” of the $12 million to $17 million range.
He suggested one way to bring down the cost is to seek bids again on the pump station and force main.
Project engineers had estimated the shared infrastructure would cost around $9 million back when the private beach associations and the town agreed to participate.
But two rounds of bids came back twice as high as the engineers’ estimates. Project documents show a $17.5 million low bid in the first round, while Whalen said the second round came in at $18 million.
Stevens said DEEP is looking at new funding sources stemming from the federal infrastructure bill law passed in 2021 to close the gap.
The $1 trillion package included more than $50 billion allocated to drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Stevens said federal Clean Water funds covering 25% of the total project are already in place and are included in the amount his agency has promised to try to secure for the town.
‘Shovels in the ground’
Whalen, the Old Colony Beach Association chairman, on Monday hailed the state’s cooperation.
“We may be able to send this project back out to bid by the end of summer, early fall, and possibly have shovels in the ground by the end of 2023,” he said.
Whalen said he is submitting an application this week for a $3 million federal grant for projects prioritized by the state and tribal entities.
Old Colony Beach Association residents would have to pay about $1,600 annually on average for 20 years to fund sewer construction if the grants come through, according to the board chairman.
Old Lyme Shores Beach Association President Bryan Even this week said trying to find money isn’t the same as finding it.
“Until someone says ‘that’s official’ and ‘that’s a firm commitment’ — which could take weeks or month — then it remains something they’re pursuing, not a commitment,” he said.
In the meantime, he said Old Lyme Shores residents are uncomfortable with a project they believe is not economically feasible.
Currently, Old Lyme Shores is responsible for addressing pollution under the “unified consent order” from state along with the three other beach communities.
Even said DEEP officials at last week’s meeting denied his association’s request for a modified order so Old Lyme Shores leadership could work with the state — separate from the other beach communities — to address pollution with the goal of a more cost effective and immediate solution.
“I can say that we as a beach are not aligned with the other members of the project because they want to proceed,” he said. “We would like to pursue other alternatives.”
Even said those representing the state wouldn’t consider any changes to the unified order.
Stevens, the DEEP bureau chief, put it this way in the interview with The Day: “From our perspective, these orders are appropriate and we certainly would like to see a resolution of the community pollution problem.”
‘Number one priority’
State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, on Monday described the funding as her “number one priority.”
In addition to championing the commitment from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, she requested a separate $26 million allocation through the State Bond Commission.
She said she’s been working with state Department of Revenue Services Commissioner and state infrastructure advisor Mark Boughton on the priority. She acknowledged her original bonding request may be less depending on the ultimate cost of the pump station and force main when it goes out to bid again.
The first-year state senator said she heard from many people on the campaign trail about the importance of the sewer project. She found most supported the sewer system, but added the smaller number of opponents were vocal.
“I can’t be against cleaning up our sound. I can’t be against cleaning up our number one natural resource. I can’t,” she said. “The only thing I could be against was it being a financial hardship for families, and now I believe we’ve settled that problem.”
Frank Pappalardo, a founder of the grassroots Sound View Sewer Coalition and chairman of the public Sound View Commission, said the coalition is not necessarily against sewers. He said members are for “reasonable, practical solutions” to pollution – if pollution exists.
“But so far we haven’t been shown the problem, other than someone from the DEEP says we have a problem and we just have to accept that,” he said.
Members of the coalition at public meetings have said data culminating in 2013 indicating a significant pollution problem is outdated and does not take into account a subsequent ordinance requiring residents to pump out their septic systems every seven years.
Groundwater data, development density and the effect of potential rising sea levels on septic systems are among the criteria the state environmental agency uses in its review of pollutants.
Stevens said his agency has analyzed multiple factors over many years to conclude septic systems in Old Lyme are putting drinking water and the Long Island Sound at risk.
“I don’t think you need to go back and restudy that,” he said.
He said he does not believe the agency has done any additional testing since 2013.