Hartford residents were finally granted the opportunity to tell federal officials about their experiences having to deal with flooding and sewage that has entered and damaged their homes and businesses over the past several years and even decades. In a meeting with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, David Cash, EPA Administrator Region I, and Sharon Wells, the EPA’s director of the Civil Rights Urban Affairs Region 1, Hartford residents told the EPA officials that ‘nobody should have sewage in their basement.’
The meeting was organized by community activist Bridgitte Prince, civil/environmental rights attorney Cynthia Jennings, the Greater Hartford African American Alliance, Veterans for Black Lives Matter, and McKinney King American Legion Post 142, with the support of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal. The meeting was held at the American Legion Hall on Main Street, Hartford, and was in place of a previously scheduled meeting (visited by EPA investigators) that was canceled on January 17, 2023.
A resident of Pembroke Street, Debra Jervis, told the officials of having to deal with flooding that happened in 2019, and again in 2022. She is now in danger of losing her insurance if she files an additional claim. Jervis emphasized that as a homeowner, and on behalf of other homeowners who are facing similar situations, “…we’re begging you for help. We need help. We are tired of the finger-pointing where well, it’s the City, it’s the MDC… We’re crying out for help. Please help us.”
Senator Blumenthal told the residents that this meeting is the beginning of a process that will only end when there are actions taken to eliminate the flooding, stop backups in people’s basements, and all other sewage issues that for too long, residents have had to experience first-hand. He continued to say that action is overdue, although not casting blame on any one person, or any one agency, because in this situation several agencies bear the responsibility for addressing the problem. He assured the residents that he believes in good faith, everyone wants to address this problem, and he will be attending more meetings as a means of staying on top of the problem.
Cash, the EPA administrator, expressed that it was devastating to hear what the residents have had to deal with in terms of flooding and sewage issues. He said (excerpted), “Nobody should have sewage in their basement, no one should have floods…we’re setting our sights and trying to solve this problem working with the community…looking forward to working with DEEP as we move forward.”
Katie S. Dykes, Commissioner of the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, was in attendance with her staff. She acknowledged that flooding and sewage issues in the City have been long-standing with the combined sewers that go back 100 years. She said, “We’ve billions that we’ve been investing in trying to address the issue…But residents have real concerns that they haven’t seen these dollars…We’ve done a lot on the public system to try to fix it – the infrastructure that’s in the streets [or] the wastewater treatment plants – we’ve made major upgrades. There are a lot of good ideas here that are coming out about ways we can also provide grants or even loans…to help people make improvements on their properties to address these issues.”
Dykes offered that climate change is creating more frequent and intense rainstorms. She said (excerpted), ” When you have a vulnerable community, where they feel that there has not been [a] proportionate investment, this community is feeling those impacts of climate change, first and worst…We are going to be sitting down tomorrow to talk with our partners at EPA and figure out while we have these federal dollars, what can we do to make a difference?’
Resident Reesa Cannada said (excerpted) she has been a homeowner for 43 years on Elm Street, with her husband, and now whenever it rains, her basement becomes “like a river…I have to put on rain boots to go in the basement, and we have to pump the water out of the basement.” Cannada said she has no intention of moving due to the problem and she is also advocating on behalf of the other homeowners.
Jervis said she was fortunate to receive financial help from her insurance, but she still had to pay out-of-pocket for the difference in the cost of repairs. She is trying her best to put preventative measures in place and the City has helped through a grant program, but that is putting a band-aid on the problem.
Mayor Luke Bronin thanked the residents for sharing their experiences and illuminated the need to talk about the City’s entire stormwater system because, for the most part, Hartford’s sewer systems were built more than a century ago. “It’s an ancient system…But the thing I want to make sure that everybody here knows because it’s got to be part of our advocacy as a City…there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of work being done to separate the sewer and the storm sewer…the problem is that Clean Water money that has been spent, can only be spent on separation, it can’t be spent to build a storm sewer system that’s actually capable of handling the amount of water that we’re getting.”
MDC Chairman William DiBella said the MDC is working with the community, the City, and the federal government. He said, “There are issues that we have to deal with, relative to what we actually have the authority to do. And it’s basically stormwater…And the environment has changed dramatically. In April of last year, we had a 100- and 250-year storm in the same week. That’s a significantly different environment that the systems [were] designed for. We need federal help. We need state cooperation and help, and regional, as we are a regional body along with the City of Hartford.”
Dibella said he understands what is happening in the community and the complaints of residents regarding a slow response time, many of the issues are happening on private property, which is not within their [MDC’s] control. He said, “We have only so much authority, given to us by the state…And the DEEP basically controls what we can do. We just spent $1.7 billion in the last 10 to 12 years… And we’re going to spend another couple of billion dollars in the next 25 years. The mayor was right. It’s an old system…And we are now putting money into it…And we have been doing this for the last 10 to 15 years.”
Dibella also talked about the $2 million that the MDC had spent during this year  just for backflow controls. He said, “We put them [at] our expense to resolve those problems, but the environment has changed so dramatically in the last seven to 10 years. We all have to work together, the federal infrastructure bills money is coming down…And we’re participating.”
Source: Deidre Montague, Hartford Courant, February 7, 2023.