Seawater On Main Street — Or More?

Like a number of buildings on Main Street, #69 is under construction.

Developers are working hard to resuscitate downtown. In addition to the usual retail challenges — online shopping, the opening of the new Norwalk mall, finding the right “mix” — Main Street stores face frequent flooding.

A web of federal, state and local regulations cover building lots near rivers and wetlands.

So when Chip Stephens and Al Gratrix — both members of the Planning & Zoning Commission — noticed excavation work at #69, and saw water being pumped into storm drains in Parker Harding Plaza, they wanted to know more. When they smelled a strong odor in the water, they grew concerned.

The back of 69 Main Street, on Parker Harding Plaza, in an undated photo.

That night, coincidentally, the P&Z met. The developer sent a representative to ask for approval of work they’d already begun.

Stephens asked about the pump, and smell. The representative replied that it was seawater, brought in by high tides. She said the work involved removing slab, replacing a drainpipe and bathing the project.

The next day, Stephens and Gratrix returned. This time, they noticed soil work. Town engineer Peter Ratkiewich told them there were 7 fuel tanks there. Two still contained fuel. He said the smell from the excavation reached Elm Street — and one store in the area had to be closed at one point, due to the strong oil odor.

A number of old oil tanks are located by the river. They date back decades, to the days when the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of stores on the west side of Main Street. Parker Harding Plaza was developed on landfill, in the 1950s.

P&Z staff discovered documents that showed the developer knew back in 2018 that the oil tanks and oil contamination would be a problem. However, at the P&Z meeting the representative simply said that the odorous water — being emptied into storm drains — was “seawater.”

Last night, Stephens and Gratrix requested a new meeting to reconsider the decision; for the developer to explain why the P&Z was not informed of contamination at 69 Main Street, and the remedies required; a timeline of knowledge of contamination, and why excavation and demolition occurred without a permit for new construction — and, most important, an outline of steps going forward for remediation of 69 Main Street, so construction can continue properly under Coastal Area Management code.

24 responses to “Seawater On Main Street — Or More?

  1. WOW!

  2. So “seawater” that had infiltrated the remediation site was being pumped to drains which lead to the Saugatuck River?

  3. William Strittmatter

    Putting aside explaining to the P&Z, isn’t this a criminal offense under the Clean Water Act?

  4. So one town department (DPW) knew all about the seven buried oil tanks,
    but another department a few feet away in the same building (P&Z) knew nothing of them?

  5. PS great reporting & thanks to Mr. Stephens & Mr. Gratrix for discovering this mess!

  6. Jacque O'Brien

    Is the developer being brought to task?

  7. Jean Whirehead

    WOW WOW WOW. That will be a major unwrapping.
    (Back in the day, “burying” was more common.) But how will any of those stores overcome what’s ahead…it will get so complicated.

  8. Wow indeed.

    A question somewhat tangential to the crux of your article, but I’m curious and will ask. I did not know that the Saugatuck River used to run where the Parker Harding parking plaza currently stands and that this was turned into landfill, and then turned into a parking lot. Do we know if the way in which this was engineered perhaps contributes to the ongoing flooding issues experienced by the stores alon this stretch of Main St? Water usually flows along the path it naturally wants to take; with historic storms in the last decade with strong tides and high water tables, has the river found its way underground back to its former route?

    As for the suspect ground contamination from the buried/abandoned oil tanks, have any outside agencies (EPA?) been called in for testing? Who owns this land and would be responsible for cleanup?

  9. John McCarthy

    “and I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids”

  10. Larry Weisman

    I understand that It is difficult in the format of a blog such as this to tell a complicated story, and this story is more complicated than has been presented. I suggest that it would have been prudent to have made an inquiry of the Town Engineer before posting this story. Had that been done, I think we would have learned that the excavated fill was inspected and found not to be contaminated and that the P&Z vigilantes involved were informed of that fact but persisted nevertheless. They are, after all, running for re-election.

    • Michael Calise

      Larry. Your putting your foot in your mouth!!!

      • Michael: We’ll see.

        • Michael Calise

          You can’t un-ring the bell Larry

        • I’d say he’s ringing the bell by attempting to unring the bell. But yes, there is more to the story, and no, it doesn’t exonerate the false presentation before the P&Z referred to in Dan’s post.

          Good job Chip and Al, I know how hard you work on these PZ matters for this Town, 365 days a year – not just during election season (as Larry seemed to suggest)

    • The article is mostly about seawater, not “excavated fill” (is that the technical term for soil that has been under fuel tanks for 30 years?), and says that they did talk to the Town Engineer who reported that the odor was strong enough to close a nearby business.

      That certainly sounds like something we’d want to have checked out, no? – Chris Woods

  11. I’ve lived here 30 years and the explosion of poorly realized building projects has never been worse. Builders and developers are running this town and P&Z has become a rubber stamp that apparently takes very little “prodding” to green light bad projects. Projects that are oversized, poorly sited and architecturally have NOTHING to do with the history and spirit of Westport.

  12. Very interesting. I was down there recently and smelled oil/diesel in the air…I thought it could have traveled over from all the paving work… but perhaps it was this!

    A few questions:
    1. The article does not mention whether there is a full (or partial) “stop work order” in place… is there?
    2. Has CT DEP been looped in? USCG? USACE (if applicable)?
    3. Has the source of the infiltration of seawater been located? Slowed? Stopped? Fixed?
    4. Are there structural concerns for the plaza/buildings? At risk for undermining / collapse? If seawater is somehow getting all of the way over there is concern I would think?
    5. Has anyone taken a step back and looked at the whole area? Is there a map or record or image showing location of all known oil tanks? Interesting that just the other week we were hearing of at least one building that was discharging raw sewage via an old pipe directly into the Saugatuck River not too long ago… perhaps a complete review of the whole area is in order?

    Also interesting as I have read several articles about “Creating land” and problems now being faced. A big example is how NYC was expanded, especially downtown, with Battery Park, FiDi, WTC, with land having been created with fill \… and now flooding is a major concern.

  13. PS. why is the developer not named?

  14. Cathy Walsh P&Z

    Oh Larry lol…are you Trishyshine? I missed you at the wonderful Westoberfes today. The DMA pulled together another great event. It was a perfect day and good to see so many people outside having a wonderful time. Congrats to all involved. Events are what will drive Downtown foot traffic and differentiate our town from the others. That’s what we ‘ve been promoting and have planned.

    • Larry Weisman

      No Cathy, I’m not Trishyshine. I have no aliases, (although my wife sometimes refers to me as Lawrence of Suburbia), but I do congratulate her (or him) for getting the story right and exposing the misrepresentations of your colleagues.

  15. anyone know the name of the contractor?