NEWINGTON – Town officials are investigating if the fuel spill around the school bus garage was due to employee negligence, after an audio recording about the incident was revealed.
Up to 19,000 gallons of diesel fuel dispersed over about 13 months in an area of at least a half-mile radius around Garfield Street. It was discovered on Dec. 27, with initial cleanup cost estimates totaling in the millions of dollars.
Town Manager Tanya Lane updated elected officials on the ongoing situation during a special Town Council meeting Monday, when the Jan. 9 recording was played for a packed room of more than 60 people.
The conversation took place between Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Collins and Chief Financial Officer Lou Jachimowicz, who said two fail-safes on the offending pipe went unchecked by town highway and transportation staff. A sensor and a pressure indicator designed to alert employees to system leakage had not been tested or inspected for a possible time span of years, Jachimowicz told Collins.
“You could say there is significant deficiency on our part because nobody was checking into it for ages,” he was recorded as saying. “They didn’t do the test, they didn’t do the inspection and on top of it they weren’t keeping the perpetual inventory log.”
The two go on to discuss financial ramifications and which town bodies were responsible for growing cleanup costs.
“It seems you can’t try to hang the board to pay every dime of this and then the town would kick in a nickel,” Jachimowicz said.
“Whatever happened we’ve got to clean it up,” Collins said later on.
He and Jachimowicz repeatedly referred to “Alan” and “Dennis,” pointing blame to them for not following proper procedure. Town Attorney Ben Ancona identified these individuals as Director of Transportation Alan Avery and Dennis Dubois, another town worker who ordered fuel for the bus garage.
Jachimowicz had left a voicemail for Town Engineer Gary Feurstenberg before he and Collins, who were in the same room, continued their conversation.
“Apparently he didn’t hang up,” Ancona said. “Gary’s voicemail picked up the entire conversation and he gave it to the town manager.”
The recording was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by resident Scott Greczkowski, according to Ancona.
Mayor Roy Zartarian said that although the town was required to release the recording, it was the best course of action.
“Given the demand we sensed to have that made public we moved forward with it,” he explained. “We thought it best to be completely transparent on that issue.”
Zartarian called the audio “revealing,” adding, “We are considering what actions to take in regards to the situation.”
Lane said that as of this week 145,163 gallons of water and 8,741 tons of soil had been treated for contamination, along with 12.000 to 14,000 gallons of diesel recovered through pumping, booming and digging. Crews from Connecticut Tank Removal and Aegis Inc. have been paid over $700,000 so far and have submitted over $700,000 in outstanding invoices.
“Our hope is to manage this without taking a bond note,” Lane said. “That is what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Staff are in the process of finalizing paperwork to receive $1 million in reimbursement from Chubb Insurance Co. The town’s policy limit is $2 million for up to two separate pollution incidents.
Board of Education Chairman Josh Shulman told the Town Crier Tuesday that the body planned to foot the remainder of the bill using capital improvements funds.
“Right now we will be shouldering all of the financial cost using money that would have been spent on maintenance and building projects,” he said. “It’s something we need to do to lessen the burden on the town and taxpayers.”
Shulman added that collaboration between the BOE and councilors has been ongoing.
“We all realize Newington is one town and the best way to pay for this is a decision the local bodies make together.”
Officials have confirmed that they will demolish the bus garage and excavate ground beneath to remove contamination. This would cost $19,000 less than other options considered, according to Lane. It has yet to be decided how to remove diesel fuel beneath Garfield Street without tearing up the road on which the police department and Town Hall are located.
“This is something we’re still wrestling with,” added Lane, who estimated this particular cost at almost $400,000.
Cleanup will continue for at least another six months, she said, but no affirmative timeline has been set.
Several residents brought up their concerns to elected officials this week, some pointing blame and others asking only for continued communication to the public.
“I don’t care who’s to blame,” said Michael Fox, former chairman of the town’s environmental quality commission. “My only concern is how are we going to prevent this from happening again?”
No criminal or disciplinary action had been taken on any town employees in regards to the matter as of Tuesday.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.