Moving Forward, Looking Back / Hay wagons, sewers and sickly ducks
An 1847 atlas of Fairfield shows a 6-acre strip of residential properties along the north side of the Post Road between Pine Creek Road and the Mill River, home to the Colemans, Smiths, Bennetts, and Conklins. The northern boundary of the parcel was formed by the recently-laid tracks of the New Haven Railroad.
A century later, this unassuming tract became known as the Exide site. Yes, this will be the topic of this column, so if you don't think you can read another word about it, here's your chance to flip immediately to the sports section. But if you ever wondered about how the Exide site came to be, read on.
The coming of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century was a great boon to Fairfield but not so great for hay wagons. The railroad tracks were laid down on the same level as the roads. Trains went 40 mph; the fastest hay wagon topped out at 2 mph. The result was a rash of unscheduled encounters, the advantage going to the trains.
Finally, in 1892, the state ordered the railroad to raise the grade of the tracks to permit the roads to pass safely underneath. This they did, but not enough to allow clearance without also making the roads dip down as they passed below the tracks. This, in turn, required the installation of a storm drain system in the form of a 10-inch pipe running more than 1,000 feet along the railroad right-of-way from Pine Creek Road to empty into the Mill River. Keep this storm drain in mind as we move ahead.
Fast-forward to 1928. The 1847 home sites had given way to the Aluminum Corporation of America (aka Alcoa), and an aluminum foundry. It was the talk of the town, the Colonial Revival administration building having been designed by notable local architect Cameron Clark.
In 1950, Alcoa sold the foundry to the Electric Storage Co. (aka Exide), and it was refitted for the production of batteries. In its heyday, 100 workers cranked out 8,000 batteries a day. Tanker trucks arrived loaded with sulfuric acid, which was mixed with lead ingots to produce various forms of lead salts for batteries. They weren't baking cookies in there.
The town's approach at the time went something like this: "Well, if that's what it takes to make batteries, fine, but you will be careful with that stuff, won't you?" Even before federal environmental and workplace-safety regulation, industrial sites were expected to have systems for managing industrial waste, sanitary waste, and storm runoff. Aerial photos from the 1950s to the 1970s, however, showed a suspicious plume spreading into the adjacent Mill River.
Exide was acquired by International Nickel (aka INCO) in 1974. It was around then that pediatricians Frank Scholan and Bill Kieffner (both of whom I had the pleasure of knowing) observed from their office -- a converted tide mill over the Mill River in Southport -- that the local ducks were acting funny; they were having trouble flying or paddling. Astute clinicians that they were, they suspected a toxin exposure and reported this to the Department of Health. They were, of course, correct; the plant life in the Mill River downstream from the Exide plant -- i.e., duck food -- was heavily contaminated with lead.
No mystery about the source of the lead, but how did it get into the river? Let's just say that between 1928 and 1981 (when the plant shut down for good) the combined efforts of Alcoa, Exide, the railroad, the state highway department and the town resulted in a proliferating hodgepodge of underground drainage and waste systems that got interconnected or compromised.
In other words, industrial lead by-products ended up running in the wrong pipes or leaking out.
Above ground, the Exide site had seen a half-century of serious manufacturing. But below ground and out of view, there was a half-century of serious mishandling of highly toxic industrial waste. The lead leaked into the soil below the factory and was dumped into the conveniently-located Mill River. Remember that 1892 railroad storm drain? Somehow, that drain, installed simply to transport rainwater, got swept up in the subterranean confusion and has been steadily depositing lead into the sediment of the Mill River.
The Exide plant ceased operations, but it has left behind a leaden legacy -- a three-decade odyssey of environmental monitoring, corporate disputes, regulatory review, continuing contamination, and incomplete remediation.
The plant was demolished in 2005. What remains is a sylvan field on the Post Road, burdened with lead in its soil that still manages to find its way into the Mill River. This latest lead remediation project aims to be definitive, but it appears that it will leave for another day the problem of chromium discharges into the Mill River from Superior Plating across the way.
And what will become of the Exide site once it's deemed safe to use? It's now owned by Invest II, a company that likes to build big-box stores. The Colemans, Smiths, Bennetts, and Conklins are not likely to be back.
For his help in reporting this column, thanks to Thomas Steinke, town director of conservation, who has lived with the Exide story for about 40 years.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.