Is It Safe? Memos Unearth New Concerns Over Pollution At O’Sullivan’s Island In Derby

Six internal memos dating back to 2010 warned Derby’s former mayor about possible pollution at O’Sullivan’s Island as the mayor and his administration kept assuring the public the park was safe in the wake of a $4 million federal cleanup.

The memos have never previously been shared with the public.

One of the memos says that after the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hauled away almost 14,000 tons of contaminated dirt in 2009, the presence of PCBs in the ground on part of the property still exceeded state environmental guidelines.

Another memo points out the EPA activity dealt only with PCB contamination, and not the multitude of chemicals, metals, and other contaminants that had been identified elsewhere on the city-owned property.

In fact, an EPA spokesman Jan. 22 confirmed that his agency’s activities concentrated on the southern portion of the site, an area the EPA had previously dealt with in the 1980s. The northern side of O’Sullivan’s Island, formerly home to a fire training facility, was not part of the agency’s “removal action,” the spokesman said.

While the memos did not tell Mayor Anthony Staffieri and his administration to prohibit public access to the park, the documents emphasized that without further tests, the city simply could not know for sure what they were dealing with under the ground at O’Sullivan’s Island.

All the memos advised the city to conduct more soil testing at the property.

FILE PHOTONeither Staffieri nor the city’s corporation counsel reacted to the memos when they were received in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The information was never shared with the Derby Board of Aldermen, the city’s elected legislative body.

The memos — three from the Valley Council of Governments (VCOG) and three from a licensed environmental firm working with Derby and VCOG — provide context to why new Mayor Anita Dugatto and the Board of Aldermen closed O’Sullivan’s Island Jan. 15, nearly three years after a ribbon-cutting ceremony inviting the public to explore the city’s newest public park.

The issue is scheduled to be discussed at an Aldermen meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, Jan. 22) in Derby City Hall.

The current crop of elected officials have been highly critical of the past administration, saying Staffieri and his economic development director evaded answering direct questions about the O’Sullivan’s Island cleanup and kept Derby in the dark about potential liabilities lurking on the property, including the fact the EPA has threatened to sue the city over the money it spent in Derby.

Staffieri was unseated as Derby mayor during the Nov. 5 election.

Staffieri Reacts

In an interview with the Valley Indy Jan. 21, Staffieri said he relied on the expertise of the EPA, the federal agency that supervised a 2008-2009 cleanup at O’Sullivan’s Island.

The EPA restored the property, laid down two feet of protective soil, and said the property was ready for passive recreation, the former mayor said.

To this day, no one has said otherwise, Staffieri said.

“If anyone out there says the EPA doesn’t know how to do their job, well, they have to take it up with the EPA, don’t you think? They are the federal agency that are in charge of these things,” Staffieri said.

FILE PHOTOHowever, the EPA, along with state environmental regulators, said the most recent cleanup at O’Sullivan’s Island was never billed as as a full remediation of the contamination under the ground.

The 2008-2009 EPA activity was an “emergency removal action,” not a remediation of the site.

The EPA’s job was, essentially, to stop an immediate threat to the public, then turn the property back over to the owner — in this case, Derby.

A full cleanup of the property — one that conforms to state standards — is Derby’s responsibility, state guidelines.

But officials from both the EPA and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection stopped short this week of second-guessing the 2009 decision to open O’Sullivan’s Island to the public.

That is, assuming no one is doing anything other than walking there.

“The work that we did at that location, as far as we were concerned, it was obviously safe for people to walk on and to use passively,” EPA New England spokesman Jim Murphy said Jan. 21

Yet state officials also said additional testing — and, possibly, more cleanup work — is needed if O’Sullivan’s Island is to ever get off the state’s “Significant Environmental Hazard” list.

Meanwhile, Derby Democrats are hopping mad because none of this information was shared with them, even after they asked for it.

They point out that the soil on the property hasn’t been tested since 2009, and has been subject to major flooding three times. They want assurances the protective soil layer on the site is still intact.

The photo below shows the condition of the park during a flood in March of 2011, when flood waters carried construction equipment down the Housatonic River and onto O’Sullivan’s Island.

The article continues below.

Staffieri, though, said the new Derby Aldermen are making a “mountain out of an anthill” by deciding to close the park in order to test the soil.

“I think they were totally lost in their decision. Some of these Aldermen knew the whole sequence of events,” the former mayor said. “A federal agency gave us the go-ahead. What agency, whether it is DEEP or what have you, has given a statement in writing saying ‘Do not use the island?’ None.”

A Brief Summary Of A Very Dirty Place

O’Sullivan’s Island — actually a peninsula with a nickname referencing an insurance agent from Derby who wanted the land to be a public park — has a long tradition of toxicity.

It sits where the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers meet, not far from Caroline Street in downtown Derby.

Article continues after the 1990s-era map. Click here to see a larger view.

O'Sullivan's Island Map

The northern part of the property, close to the Route 8 bridge, was used as the Valley Fire Training School from the 1950s until 2000. The underground contaminants from that part of the property, as detailed in a 2003 report, included lead, arsenic and pesticides.

The southern portion of the site, closer to the Naugatuck River, was an illegal dumping ground, infested with about 1,000 55-gallon drums hidden in the soil, along with other contaminants.

In the early 1980s, the EPA, during its first “emergency removal action,” hauled away hundreds of PCB-stuffed barrels that posed an immediate threat to the public and the rivers.

The article continues after the timeline below.

The EPA also dug up PCB-contaminated dirt, marked the piles and left them behind for Derby — who had made themselves the “responsible party” for the gunk in the ground — to deal with.

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Derby and the Valley Council of Governments secured funding to determine the full extent of the contamination on both sides of the property, and, eventually, how much it would cost to do a full cleanup.

The Valley Council of Governments in about 2007 tried to secure federal funding for a complete cleanup of the entire site, but failed to snag the money to get the job done, officials said.

New Day, Old Dirt

Fast forward to 2008, when the EPA, with cooperation from Derby government, arrived for a second “emergency removal action.”

Click here to download minutes from a 2008 Aldermen meeting in which the matter was discussed.

EPA NEW ENGLAND PHOTOIn 2008 and 2009, crews working under EPA supervision trucked away tons of soil, almost 100 more buried drums, a partially crushed 1,000 gallon underground storage tank and lots of other things that just shouldn’t be in the ground.

In October 2009, the EPA, having planted new grass and trees on the old toxic waste dump, conducted a final site walk with Staffieri and economic development director Sheila O’Malley, after which “oversight responsibilities were relinquished back to the City of Derby,” according to an EPA report.

The cost of the “removal action” skyrocketed from an original estimate of some $300,000 to $4 million as the EPA kept finding more and more PCB contamination on the property.

Read this PDF for some information on the costs associated with the “emergency removal.”

The city held an O’Sullivan’s Island ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 8, 2009.

And that’s when the trouble started.

Rick Dunne, executive director of the Valley Council of Governments, was at the ribbon cutting. While his agency had been involved with O’Sullivan’s Island for years, VCOG was just another observer for the EPA cleanup.

Dunne said he chatted at the ribbon cutting with Wing Chau, the EPA’s on-site coordinator for the project.

FILE PHOTODunne said it became apparent the EPA concentrated only on removing PCB-contaminated soil and the buried drums on the southern side of the approximately 10-acre property.

Dunne said no one could fully account for the contamination that had been previously documented on the fire training side of O’Sullivan’s Island.

In fact, Dunne said the crews hired by the EPA used the fire training portion of the site as a staging ground, and moved contaminated soil around the site, even damaging wells that had been installed to monitor underground pollution.

EPA Reacts

In an interview Jan. 22, EPA New England spokesman James Murphy confirmed that his agency only concentrated on the southern portion of O’Sullivan’s Island, in the area where the EPA first hauled away toxic waste in the 1980s.

“We did a lot of work out there, we spend a lot of money, but we did not return it to a pristine situation where we got every PCB out of there. We enabled it to be used for what it was designed to be used for — a recreational area,” Murphy said. “We took all the PCBs out of the first two feet and removed a bunch a barrels. That’s what our charge was under that (removal) program.”

But the EPA did not deal with non-PCB pollution on the northern side of the property, where the fire training facility was.

“That is not the area we were addressing. We went out there to remove soil piles and, as we were sampling, we noted that there was additional contamination on the surface in the area of the soil piles. We sampled that area, but not the whole property,” Murphy said.

Dunne Raised Concerns

Dunne said he aired his concerns to Staffieri during a conversation the day of the ribbon-cutting.

“I immediately walked over to Mayor Staffieri to tell him the site likely still had contamination at the Fire Training Facility, and that we had to get a (licensed environmental firm) on the site to re-sample the soils and groundwater and consult with DEEP before taking down the warning signs and letting the public use the site,” Dunne told the Valley Indy.

“My advice was not greeted warmly. (Staffieri) assured me that the EPA took care of this and pointed to the clean fill over the whole island as proof,” Dunne said.

Staffieri released a prepared statement Jan. 21 saying he relied on the EPA’s assessment of O’Sullivan’s Island. The agency said the site was clean and sent representatives to help cut the ribbon, the mayor said.

“The decision to open the island to the public was fully sanctioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was done with their knowledge,” Staffieri said.

The former mayor’s full statement is below:

Anthony Staffieri Statement

Staffieri’s statement indicates Derby had no choice as to whether to allow the EPA onto O’Sullivan’s Island.

Murphy, the federal spokesman, noted the EPA doesn’t force itself upon towns to conduct emergency removals. The EPA came to Derby at the request of the city, Murphy said.

In addition, Murphy said the EPA was clear on the fact they were dealing with PCB removals on the southern side of O’Sullivan’s Island, not necessarily the former fire training facility.

Murphy said the EPA will reach out to Derby Mayor Anita Dugatto to detail the EPA’s involvement with the site.

The Memos

In May 2010, seven months after the public returned to O’Sullivan’s Island, the EPA published its 200-page “after action” report, detailing what it did at the property.

Dunne said the document does not detail the previously documented soil contamination on the northern side of the property.

The document does mention taking apart fire pits and unearthing material from the fire training side, but doesn’t go into detail, Dunne said.

GO Environmental, a firm in Milford, was hired by Derby through VCOG to analyze the EPA’s voluminous “after action” report in an effort to assess the situation at O’Sullivan’s Island.

Among GO Environmental’s findings: Fourteen soil samples from O’Sullivan’s Island at the end of the EPA emergency response had PCB concentrations ranging from 10.1 parts per million to 1,820 parts per million.

Connecticut’s PCB “remediation” standard — that is, the amount of PCBs allowable in soil to declare it clean — is no more than 10 parts per million, and that is assuming the dirty soil is buried at least 4 feet in the ground, or sealed under a building, or 2 feet under a 3-inch-thick paved surface.

The Derby dirt is under just 2 feet of clean soil, according to city officials.

Wait, 1,820 Parts Per Million?

The GO memo — sent to the City of Derby and VCOG Sept. 3, 2010 — doesn’t state which part of the property contained the PCBs reading of 1,820 parts per million.

The Valley Indy asked Patrick Bowe, the director of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s remediation division, about the alarmingly high number.

“We would certainly recommend, if you have that kind of number, that you take any one of several actions. Largely we would look at those higher-end numbers, we would look to have people refrain from walking around or digging or getting any of that material on themselves, especially kids,” Bowe said.

Back To The Memos

The letter from GO Environmental to the City of Derby and VCOG said the soil with elevated PCB levels would have to be “actively remediated” if Derby wanted to comply with Connecticut’s “remediation standard regulations.”

In addition, the GO Environmental letter warned that the EPA activity at O’Sullivan’s Island was “solely to address the PCB issues on the site.”

“The samples were not analyzed for the other contaminants known to be historically present on the site,” the letter states.

The 2010 letter, which is embedded below, lists some of the toxic substances previously discovered in the ground at O’Sullivan’s Island, but not detailed in the EPA’s report, including pesticides, metals and volatile organic compounds.

The article continues after the 2010 memo.


“The EPA excavations did not address previously identified soil contamination on the northern side of the site, formerly occupied by the Fire Training Area. The EPA activities did not address any known or potential groundwater issues on the site,” the letter states.

The GO Environmental letter — along with two other letters from the firm suggesting more testing — were given to the Derby Mayor’s Office, Dunne said.

A Dec. 8, 2010 VCOG memo to Staffieri, O’Malley and Derby Corporation Counsel Joseph Coppola referenced the fact the city can’t access $355,000 in grants meant to improve O’Sullivan’s Island because of “the contamination issue.”

VCOG sent another memo to Staffieri, O’Malley and Coppola in 2011.

In March 2012, VCOG sent yet another memo to Staffieri, O’Malley and Coppola.

This one was authored by Dunne.

“You should recall that (environmental planner) Arthur Bogen and I met with you in December 2010 to express concern that while the EPA contractor at the O’Sullivan’s Island site apparently covered the site with an unknown amount of clean fill, there is no documentation or evidence that all contaminants have been removed or are safely separated from the members of the public using the site,” the document read.

The full 2012 memo is posted below.

VCOG to Derby Mayor March 2012

Dunne said neither Staffieri nor Coppola would respond to the memos in writing or during conversations in person.

When asked about the memos Jan. 21, Staffieri said reiterated that he relied on the EPA’s assessment of the O’Sullivan’s Island.

Staffieri said that if Dunne wanted to second-guess the EPA, he should have communicated with the EPA directly.

Coppola didn’t return three e-mails seeking comment. O’Malley referred the Valley Indy to Staffieri’s prepared statement.

“I guess Mr. Dunne is saying that the EPA doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Staffieri said.

Dunne said Staffieri’s comments indicate he still does not grasp what he invited the EPA to do at O’Sullivan’s Island.

Dunne noted the EPA contractor left behind a two-foot barrier of soil meant to act as a barrier between humans and anything possibly still in the ground.

But is that enough?

FILE PHOTO“In retrospect, even though this fill might have made it ‘safe’ to prevent contact with the remaining PCBs, that does not mean anything as to the Fire School contaminants,” Dunne said.

“The fill may be enough. It may not. It may have been washed away during any of the times the site was flooded with stormwater,” Dunne said.

Dunne said he kept pushing the mayor to conduct more soil testing, but to no avail.

“My point to Mayor Staffieri (was that) until a scientist tests the site for all the contaminants that were present before EPA’s contractor moved the contaminated soils around without remediating them, no one knows if the public is adequately protected,” Dunne said.

State Certification?

On Jan. 13, new Derby Mayor Anita Dugatto — having been briefed on the matter by attorneys and VCOG — sent a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection seeking state guidance and assistance with O’Sullivan’s Island.

Aldermen voted Jan. 15 to close the park to the public until more soil samples can be collected.

The video below shows the Aldermen voting to close the park Jan. 15. The article continues below.

In her letter to DEEP, Dugatto mentions O’Sullivan’s Island didn’t receive certification from the state OK’ing public use for the site and the EPA cleanup.

Technically, if the property isn’t being sold and is only being used for passive recreation, Derby does not need state certification, according to Patrick Bowe, the director of DEEP’s remediation division.

A state sign-off is needed if the city wants to declare the property “remediated” and removed from the state’s list of hazardous properties.

And, if Derby wants to do anything with the property, such as build a fishing pier or other improvements, they need the state to certify O’Sullivan’s Island is clean, as defined by the state’s standard.

This raises the question of whether past activity at the property — such as tree plantings done by the city — was advisable.

FILE PHOTODerby Alderman Ron Sill said that even if the city isn’t required to get a state sign-off, elected officials have a moral obligation to the thousands of people who picnic or walk at the property.

To ignore the memos from VCOG is just bad government at work, Sill said.

Sill said he was shocked by the fact Staffieri’s administration never gave the full picture of O’Sullivan’s Island to the Board of Aldermen, who are now fielding questions from people who have been visiting the spot since 2009.

Alderman Art Gerckens asked specifically about O’Sullivan’s Island four times, in public, Sill pointed out.

“It’s the height of irresponsibility,” Sill said. “Whether they knew or didn’t know how bad it was, it doesn’t matter. The governing body of the city should have been made aware of this. We have a responsibility to the people.”

An ‘Emergency Removal’ Isn’t A ‘Remediation’

During Derby Aldermen meetings over the summer, O’Malley answered inquiries from Gerckens by referring him to the EPA reports on O’Sullivan’s Island.

FILE PHOTOHowever, neither O’Malley, the mayor nor the city’s previous corporation counsel mentioned the six memos they had received which called for more testing.

Gerckens, in a column last week, said he was flat-out stonewalled.

“Why has there been no sampling of soil since the City took over in 2009? Especially when that area is prone to floods,” Gerckens said. “Why did they claim they had secured a $325,000 grant when they knew the grant was dependent on the site being DEEP certified?”

Bowe, the state’s top official on environmental remediation, said the EPA activity at O’Sullivan’s Island was not a complete remediation of the property.

By definition, EPA “emergency removals” are never intended to eliminate a pollution problem, Bowe said.

He compared it the EPA action on O’Sullivan’s Island to the way a fire department responds to a house fire. The firefighters extinguish the flames, then leave. Broken windows, holes in the roof, smoke and water damage — that’s the responsibility of the property owner, not the emergency responders.

“The entire site has not been remediated,” Bowe said Jan. 21. “It’s not actually been subject to an assessment that would define what the problems are, what the contamination is, how deep is that contamination, how widespread is it?”

Why the Staffieri administration opted against certifying the site on the state level is a mystery.

The city’s former corporation counsel didn’t return repeated e-mails for comment and O’Malley referred the Valley Indy to a prepared statement from Staffieri that doesn’t answer the question.

EPA PHOTOStaffieri repeatedly said he relied on the EPA for guidance. He noted DEEP never contacted his office to talk about certifying the site.

Still, in multiple public conversations about O’Sullivan’s Island, Staffieri and his advisers never revealed they weren’t going for state certification, nor did they reveal the city was in danger of losing grants because of the property’s lack of state certification.

“The idea that it is a public park and that it is being used for passive recreation, my guess is that folks basically looked at it and said, somewhere along the line, ‘EPA’s been out, they’ve cleaned it up, we’re good to go,’” Bowe, a DEEP honcho, said. “They really didn’t do a full, complete assessment of what the conditions were at the site when it was opened to the public.”

Derby is now signaling they want to take the extra steps — doing more testing, seeing what, if any, pollution remains in the ground, dealing with it, getting the site certified by DEEP, then accessing previously awarded grant money to make long-promised improvements.

Dunne pointed out this is the track Derby was on prior to the EPA’s emergency action. Previous reports that explained the extent of the pollution for the entire site are now useless and must be redone, Dunne said.

Bowe said it is not known what Derby will have to do at the property, if anything.

“Because an assessment has not been done, it would be premature to try to determine what kind of long-term cap or removal (of soil) or some combination of capping and removal of soil might be appropriate. Without knowing the results of the assessment, you really can’t determine first off, is it safe or not? Does it need remediation?” Bowe said.

“Without assessment, you really can’t tell whether all that is needed is a simple restriction on the site, such as ‘No digging on the site,’” Bowe said. “Or you might have to go back and take out more drums.”

Timeline compiled and created by Ethan Fry.


posted by: Stan Muzyk on January 28, 2014  11:47am

Back to the great-depression-era days, this area was also the site of the Derby City Dump, which means that the soil pollution here goes back some eight decades ago. My father operated Stanley’s Meat Market at the present location of Calvert Safe & Lock store on Caroline Street, “a stone’s throw from O’Sullivan’s Island.”