In anticipation of the upcoming referendum, two informational meetings about the proposed wastewater treatment plant for West Cornwall were held during June at which residents asked questions and raised their concerns about the project. The Chronicle directors have compiled answers to some frequently asked questions about the proposed plant based on those meetings and the engineer’s reports.
Why does West Cornwall need such a facility?
The Village of West Cornwall lies on top of a tight arrangement of property lines, septic systems, and drinking water wells, some of them shared by more than one household or business. The constricted space inhibits the installation and maintenance of septic systems and wells that meet CT Public Health Code’s standards of compliance. A process to examine remedies to this situation began in 2016 with the establishment of a volunteer committee of Cornwallians with the help of WMC Consulting Engineers (WMC). WMC’s project engineer for this project has over 45 years experience specializing in wastewater management for small community projects in CT.
The crucial finding of WMC’s work was that ”the existing subsurface wastewater treatment and disposal systems (in WC) contain a significant potential to detrimentally affect the water quality of potable wells and the Housatonic River.” Some additional findings included:
- A majority of existing systems do not meet Public Health Commission requirements;
- Small lot sizes limited the ability to create compliant leaching facilities;
- Overlap of water wells with septic systems exist in many instances;
- There are shared systems across lot lines;
- Soils in the area were rated “very limited” in terms of filtering capacity.
The first danger the group sought to avoid was the town being required to address the potential for pollution of the river at a time and in a manner not of its choosing. A second consideration was the potential that an adequate system would provide for economic development in the area.
What is it intended to accomplish?
A wastewater management project will allow for several buildings in the Village to have toilets, bring homes in compliance with CT’s Public Health Code and allow for more development and housing units in the Village all while minimizing the potential sources of pollution and contamination of the Housatonic River and Mill Brook.
Why do we need to vote now on this plan?
The committee formed has been working with the engineers for over 5 years, has visited sites where similar installations are found, and interviewed operators. At this point the town is in a position to take advantage of a $3 million federal grant to assist in funding the project. A loan from the USDA to fund the balance is described below. The grant and loan are conditioned on referendum approval.
Who gets to vote in the referendum?
Why doesn’t the town know where the plant will be sited?
More engineering work needs to be done in order to determine the optimal location of the system and what pumping might be required. Once determined, it will need to be reconciled with appropriate available spaces and Planning and Zoning regulations.
Will the plant be smelly and noisy?
Visits to sites where similar, and larger, facilities have been viewed in operation, along with the expert opinion of WMC have convinced those involved that the system as designed would be odorless and run quietly. WMC and Cornwall Selectmen have noted citizen’s concerns in this regard and have assured the community that the above-ground building would not be sited next to a house.
Will it fit in architecturally with the rest of West Cornwall?
Yes, the above-ground portion of the system would be about the size of a two-car garage and will be designed to fit in architecturally with the rest of the Village. Planning and Zoning will have the final word how the building will comply with existing regulations.
How will this be paid for?
The project cost, estimated at $6.23 million is, in the estimation of the project engineers, a conservative estimate. Some $3 million of the cost would be covered by a federal grant. The balance would be covered by a USDA loan. Debt service on the loan is not expected to increase the Town’s debt service over current amounts as current debt service on prior loans will have ceased by 2023. The annual operating cost of running the facility at maximum capacity is estimated at $110,000 which the town will bear, and offset by users who decide to connect.
If I live in West Cornwall, am I obligated to connect to the system?
No, connecting to the system will be entirely at the option of property owners in the Village.
Why is it only connecting the businesses and a few residences and not the wider residential area?
The system is designed to alleviate the existing issues of lack of compliant septics and shared wells in the most densely populated sections of the Village. This, according to WMC, is the least expensive approach that could be expanded later to accommodate future needs.
Why is it controversial, are there objections and other concerns?
Some critics argue that there’s little or no evidence of current pollution; that the project is too ambitious or expensive for a small settlement like West Cornwall, and that all commercial space in West Cornwall is already occupied so there’s no need or reason for thinking businesses will expand. Some residents there are comfortable with their current situation, and are not anticipating expanding or altering their properties in a manner that would require new approvals for expanding their existing septic systems.
One anonymous group (or individual?) that calls itself “Friends of Cornwall” seems to accept the need for a wastewater system but objects to the system proposed for many reasons including that there may be other, cheaper alternatives that have not been adequately explored. Some of the objections they raise we find misleading or in some instances, outright false.
The town has held two informational sessions to explain the need for a system as well as allow the town to hear directly about the proposed solution from our consulting engineer as well as from the head of the Board of Finance explaining how it would be financed. Recordings of these meetings can be found here: https://youtu.be/rCBLlg-4iM4 and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
What does the Cornwall Conservation Trust think about this proposal?
The Trust has stated that, “the proposed wastewater treatment system that was selected, a reverse osmosis system, is state-of-the-art technology that filters out a number of contaminants that many traditional soil-based septic systems and municipal sewer treatment facilities are simply not designed, or able, to treat. Among these many contaminants are nitrates. Nitrogen is one of the most significant threats to the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound, and removing it from our waters is a top goal of water managers. The wastewater discharge from this type of treatment system will be cleaner than that of traditional community septic and wastewater treatment systems, and cleaner than the receiving waters of the Housatonic River.”
Who else besides the Conservation Trust is in favor?
At a town meeting in 2019, a representative of the River Alliance of CT praised the great resource we have in the river and urged residents not to lose the reason people visit by waiting until phosphorus and nitrogen leaching, along with warming temperatures, cause algae blooms to appear in the river. In addition, Cathy Weber of the Torrington Area Health District noted in a letter submitted in support of the project that there have been a number of instances in the past where special permits had to be requested and additional State Health Department waivers obtained, to address attempts to correct septic systems in the area. She added that “the systems in West Cornwall have limped along with many patches, but there will be a breaking point.”
In addition, the Housatonic Valley Association “strongly” supports the proposed facility. They noted that “the proposed system is state-of-the-art technology that filters out a number of contaminants that many traditional soil-based systems do not. Among these contaminants are nitrates, one of the most significant threats to the Housatonic River, removing it from our waters is a top priority. We appreciate the work of the Cornwall community over the past six years in evaluating options and incorporating public feedback.”
Others who have voiced their support of the project include Congresswoman Johanna Hayes, Town of Cornwall Board of Finance, Planning and Zoning and Economic Development Commissions, State Representative Maria Horn, Northwest Hills Council of Governments, Northwest CT Conservation District, Cornwall Historical Society, Cornwall Housing Corp, West Cornwall Village Improvement Association and The Hughes Memorial Library.
Are there alternatives to the proposed plant?
Yes. According to WMC, there are several alternatives to the proposed system.
- One would be conventional upgrades to existing septic systems, which would cost the town nothing. Given the small lot sizes in the Village, the Torrington Area Health District requirements for setbacks, distances from existing wells, leaching and reserve areas could not be met without multiple exemptions being sought. In addition, WMC believes that such upgrades would do little to eliminate the potential nutrient discharge to the Housatonic River.
- Another alternative WMC noted would be innovative/alternative upgrades to existing systems (individual mini-treatment facilities). Aside from the substantial expense borne by the individual homeowners, some lots would still not be able to comply. Some states allow exemptions from the normal requirement for installing these private facilities, but CT does not. Also, these systems require constant use, and some houses in the area are used only part time. Finally, the Town would be required to supervise compliance and the potential for river and brook pollution would not be avoided effectively.
- Finally, community waste water treatment systems could be implemented, of which there are two types. One utilizes a conventional septic tank and the second is considered an “enhanced treatment” system. The conventional septic tank approach was rejected as requiring a leaching field estimated at 18 acres. Finally, an enhanced, pre-treatment system was recommended, which is the proposal being put to a vote on the referendum.
What if Cornwall fails to approve the proposed plant?
If the referendum fails to pass, Cornwall will lose the $3 million in federal funds to help finance the system and no town-wide septic system will be installed in the Village. The problems with out of compliance septic systems and wells will continue, as will the potential for pollution reaching the river through ground water run-off.
Will sewers foster economic growth?
First Selectman Gordon Ridgway, recounting his conversations with potential businesses, has noted that sewers would not necessarily solve all the problems of economic development, but that it would be hard to imagine such development without addressing this continuing issue. He added that Cornwall was better off arriving at its own solutions than having solutions imposed by others when a problem arises. Also, proponents argue that several unused buildings in the area have potential for commercial development not possible without effective sewage disposal and access to clean water.
What about the discharge of treated water into the Housatonic?
The engineers have stressed that the treatment results in water that is of drinking-water quality. Those who visited the sites where these facilities are in use saw crystal clear water, although none actually tasted it.