Citing the need for an “abundance of caution,” the Derby Board of Aldermen voted Wednesday to close O’Sullivan’s Island to the public indefinitely.
“We need to know that the property is clean,” new corporation counsel Kevin Blake said Wednesday. “It could be clean. We don’t know. We just want the documentation. Until that happens, it’s better to err on the side of caution and close it. We want to make sure things were done correctly.”
Despite the name, O’Sullivan’s Island isn’t an island, it’s a small peninsula that stretches into the water where the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers meet in Derby. A popular walking trail is next to the property. The city isn’t closing the walking trail, other than a section of it that loops through the island.
It was previously used as a training facility for fire departments. In years prior it was a dumping ground. Today it’s a pleasant-looking meadow with newly-planted trees and picnic benches, after the Environmental Protection Agency conducted an emergency cleanup that ended in 2009.
But the new administration in Derby City Hall is concerned that a $4 million federal Superfund emergency cleanup of the site only dealt with PCB contamination there, and that other contamination in the soil — specifically waste from the remnants of a fire training school — were either left behind or just not accounted for in federal reports on the cleanup.
The news was a shock to the public, who expressed perplexed views on the Valley Indy’s Facebook page minutes after the Aldermen made their announcement Wednesday night.
In a Jan. 13 letter to DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty, Derby Mayor Anita Dugatto said the federal cleanup at O’Sullivan’s Island was never “certified” by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, nor did the state certify the public use of the space.
The lack of DEEP certification, according to Derby officials, is why the city never received more than $300,000 in government grant money that was supposed to be used to build a handicapped-accessible fishing pier and boat launch at O’Sullivan’s Island. The certification would also be needed if the property was to be developed in any way.
While the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 and 2009 took away truckloads of PCB-contaminated soil, Derby wants a fresh round of soil testing to see exactly what they’re dealing with in the ground, if anything.
City officials said while the EPA has certain standards for emergency cleanups — and the Derby job was an emergency cleanup — the state has tougher standards for remediation jobs. Derby wants to see if the soil at O’Sullivan’s meets the tougher state standards.
“We want the soil tested. That’s all. We want the soil tested,” Alderman Carmen DiCenso said.
Click the play button to hear a 3-minute interview with Blake and Dugatto, which took place after an Aldermen meeting on the subject Wednesday.
Dugatto and the new Board of Aldermen want a definitive answer as to whether a two-foot soil “cap” on the property is still in good shape after extensive flooding in recent years.
At the same time, the EPA has been hounding Derby to reimburse the federal government to repay $4 million it used to remove the PCBs.
The Aldermen met in a nearly three-hour, closed-door executive session Wednesday to go over the history of O’Sullivan’s Island with Rick Dunne, executive director of the Valley Council of Governments, and two lawyers from Robinson and Cole, who have been apparently negotiating with the EPA on behalf of Derby over the $4 million outstanding bill.
After the meeting, several members of the Board of Aldermen said former Mayor Anthony Staffieri never shared information about O’Sullivan’s Island with the city’s legislative body, including the fact the federal government was threatening to file a lawsuit over the $4 million cleanup.
Staffieri never told the Aldermen the city hired Robinson and Cole to negotiate the claim, and former corporation counsel Joseph Coppola never mentioned it during his monthly reports, according to Aldermen Ron Sill, Art Gerckens, Carmen DiCenso and Barbara DeGennaro.
The revelation was particularly upsetting to Gerckens, who has asked the Staffieri administration direct questions about contamination at O’Sullivan’s Island at four public meetings.
Gerckens read a statement into the record Wednesday. Three of the first 12 words in the statement were “extremely angered” and “disgusted.”
“To get a true picture of the stonewalling I received when I asked questions concerning O’Sullivan’s Island, don’t just read the minutes of the meetings. Listen to the tapes. You will hear the insulting tone used in their responses to my questions,” Gerckens said.
Last June, in response to Gerckens’ questions, Staffieri said O’Sullivan’s Island was perfectly safe, per the federal government.
Gerckens characterized the EPA cleanup at O’Sullivan’s Island as addressing “short-term risk, not long-term risk.”
Dugatto, who was sworn in as mayor in December, said she didn’t find out the city hired a law firm to negotiate with the EPA until she received a letter from a lawyer saying he represented the city.
Dugatto then had Blake research the issue for several weeks and arranged Wednesday’s meeting to get the Board of Aldermen up to speed.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Dugatto read a prepared statement, which can be viewed in full in the video above.
The mayor and the city attorney were scheduled to meet with officials from DEEP and state Rep. Linda Gentile Thursday morning in Hartford.
While O’Sullivan’s Island is closed to the public, the main artery of the Derby Greenway from the Housatonic River to the Naugatuck River to BJ’s Wholesale on Division Street is still open as usual.
The letter from Dugatto to Etsy is embedded below: