HARTFORD — The Metropolitan District Commission filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection last week in a dispute over the treatment of contaminated groundwater from the closed Hartford landfill.
The lawsuit is the latest development in at least a three-year-long battle between the two. The MDC, a public nonprofit regional water and sewer authority, claims DEEP refuses to pay adequate sewer treatment fees since 2016 for the “leachate” runoff at the landfill site, and the state claims the MDC is imposing exorbitant and unfair fees.
Groundwater, which is high in nitrogen, is collected at the landfill site with infrastructure designed to hold it and provide a pre-treatment before it is sent to the MDC treatment plant in the sewer system. The MDC said its fee structure allows it to charge additional fees for accepting non-sewage liquids into its system.
The MDC’s lawsuit says that a routine 2016 review of accounts determined that DEEP was not being charged the additional rate for the groundwater.
An MDC attorney said Tuesday that an earlier, separate filing pending with the state’s Claims Commissioner is seeking more than $8 million in sewer fees the MDC claims DEEP owes from the landfill site.
“In a normal business review of system users, the MDC discovered that the correct rate was not being applied to the Hartford Landfill: DEEP was paying simply as a large user rather than as a releaser of contaminated groundwater,” the suit says. “DEEP has disregarded the bills at the corrected rate and unilaterally decided to continue to pay the incorrect domestic sanitary sewer rate.”
The ongoing dispute has put two of the state’s heavyweights at odds over the complex environmental concerns from the former dump. Storm water and sewage received by the state’s treatment plants is discharged into rivers after it’s cleaned, but the process is hugely expensive and untreated flows are routinely released into waterways during high demand periods and during intense rainstorms.
The MDC in the complaint, which has been filed in Superior Court in Hartford, describes an overburdened sewer system not able to fully collect the appropriate treatment fees.
“What this lawsuit is about is if DEEP does not want to pay the fees, we want them to find an alternative to disposal of the leachate in our system,” MDC Assistant District Counsel Chris Stone said Tuesday. “They average 85,000 gallons a day of liquid material we aren’t designed to accept. We just want to make sure we’re treating DEEP just as we treat every other entity discharging that type of material into our system.”
Stone said while the dispute over fees is pending with the Claims Commissioner, the suit filed this week seeks a court ruling on what DEEP should be paying for the groundwater treatment and a ruling on whether or not the MDC can refuse to accept groundwater from the landfill.
DEEP spokesman Lee Sawyer said Tuesday that the agency is still reviewing the lawsuit, but the issues in dispute are the same now as they were when former Commissioner Rob Klee sent a letter to the MDC board in July 2018 that said the MDC suddenly increased the landfill bill from $10,000 per month to $270,000, a 2,600% increase.
“MDC has justified this new charge by unilaterally and unfairly recharacterizing the wastewater discharge for the Hartford Landfill,” Klee wrote at the time. “The discharged wastewater, however, has not changed in any way since DEEP assumed post-closure operations.”
Klee in the same letter chastised the MDC for the “unfair and inaccurate characterization” that rates were increasing in member towns because DEEP was refusing to pay its share.
The MDC has also suggested that if DEEP is unwilling to pay the fees it’s being charged, it should make other arrangements for the groundwater to be treated elsewhere.
“DEEP has the ability to transfer the leachate for treatment offsite without discharging the leachate into the sewer system and treatment at the HWPCF but has chosen not to,” DEEP said.
Klee wrote that filling tanker trucks and driving them to a treatment plant is “not reasonable or feasible.”
The suit also questions the unusual regulatory setting that allows DEEP, as the manager of the landfill since it took over from CRRA in 2015, to issue itself permits to dispose of the contaminated groundwater. The MDC also questions how $20 million included in the handoff to DEEP for post-closure operations at the landfill is being spent.
DEEP said the money was sent to the state general fund after the transition, and that the $20 million is not and has never been a part of the agency’s budget.