FAIRFIELD -- Skeptical Fairfield residents questioned the Exide Group's long-awaited plan to get the lead out of Mill River during a recent forum hosted by state environmental officials at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
Barry Mauri, of Bronson Road, even questioned whether Mill River would be deep enough for Exide's plan to dredge 21,400 cubic yards of lead-contaminated sediment along 4,000 linear feet of the river, from upper Southport Harbor to Mill Hollow Park.
"Has anyone looked recently at the tidal gate?" Mauri asked Department of Energy and Environmental Protection officials toward the end of the two-hour meeting. "I don't think it will hold enough water, except at high tide, for (a dredging operation)." "When that tide gate is out and it's low tide, all that sediment is exposed," Mauri said.
Stephen R. Kellogg, Exide's manager for the dredging project, said he also is concerned about the tide gates. "Every time I look at them, I cringe," he said. "We need water to do the project."
Thomas Steinke, director of Fairfield's Conservation Department, said the Mill Pond and Tide Mill gates are privately owned, and Tonia Selmeski, a DEEP environmental analyst, said if the state agency issued a permit, a condition of the permit would have been that they be maintained.
That's something we can certainly follow up with the property owner on," she said. "Obviously the work can't get done if there's no water."
Mauri also said there is a "huge tree" in the river and he wondered how a dredge operator could work around that.
Kellogg said Exide may have to do diver-assisted dredging. "We won't get too involved in removing trees. The trees we can work around. The bigger problem is the point you just made (about tide gates)."
Exide Group Inc. manufactured automobile batteries at its factory at 2190 Post Road from 1951 to 1981, and contaminated its 6.25-acre property and the adjacent Mill River with lead. In 2006, Exide demolished its factory and removed lead-contaminated soil, and is now planning to clean up the river.
Mill River is divided into five sections in Exide's remedial action plan. The highest concentration of lead in river sediment is 170,000 milligrams per kilogram near the site of the former factory, while the goal of the dredging would be to reduce that to no more than 200 milligrams per kilogram. In the four sections, the goal is from 220 to 400 milligrams per kilogram, said Traci Iott, a supervising environmental analyst at DEEP.
"We believe the cleanup discussed today will be protective of human health and the environment, and will help restore the river to environmental goals," Iott said.
Kellogg said a hydraulic dredge would be used to vacuum sediment into large bags. Water then would be removed from the sediment, cleaned and returned to the river, while the sediment would be taken to one of three landfills, depending on how contaminated it was, Kellogg said.
He said using a hydraulic dredge instead of a cofferdam, in which parts of the river would be sectioned off and de-watered before sediment is removed, would create fewer odors.
Jane Cary, of Stratfield Road, and Kathryn Braun, a Fairfield lawyer and member of the Representative Town Meeting, said they were concerned about the river bottom after all the sediment is removed because Exide is not required to replace contaminated sediment with clean sediment.
Exide plans to excavate sediment to a depth of one to three feet. "If we end up with a dead river, is that their (Exide's) problem or our problem?" Braun asked.
Iott responded: "We're authorizing activities that we believe will restore the river ... If natural processes occur differently in this river than any other river, we'll address that at that time."
The remedial action plan requires approval from DEEP, and the project also requires permits from the agency's Office of Long Island Sound Programs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (for the discharge of contaminated sediment).
DEEP is accepting public comments on Exide's remedial action plan until Feb. 11. Comments can be sent via email to email@example.com.