NEWINGTON - Town officials are trying to determine if the fuel spill near the school bus garage was due to employee negligence, after an audio recording discussing the incident was revealed.
Up to 19,000 gallons of diesel leaked over about 13 months in an area at least a half-mile around off Garfield Street.
It was discovered on Dec. 27, 2017, with initial cleanup cost estimates in the millions of dollars.
Town Manager Tanya Lane updated elected officials on the situation at 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 School Superintendent Bill Collins and Chief Financial Officer Lou Jachimowicz, who said two fail-safes on the pipe had gone 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, possibly for 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 went 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.
He and Jachimowicz repeatedly referred to “Alan” and “Dennis,” blaming them for not following proper procedure. Town Attorney Ben Ancona identified these people 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 Fuerstenberg 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, 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 regard to the situation.”
Lane said 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 finalizing paperwork so the town can receive $1 million in reimbursement from the Chubb Insurance Co. The town’s policy limit is $2 million for up to two pollution incidents.
Board of Education Chairman Josh Shulman told the Herald Tuesday that the board planned to pay 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. 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 underneath to remove contamination. This will cost $19,000 less than other options considered, according to Lane.
It has yet to be decided how to remove diesel contamination 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 definitive 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 charges have been lodged nor disciplinary action taken as of Tuesday.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, @schmittnbh or firstname.lastname@example.org.