Mervin Roberts Reflects on Decades of Opposition to Sewers for Southeast Connecticut

Mervin Roberts in his workshop, fixing an antique door lock, July 10, 2017. (Courtesy of Mervin Roberts)


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OLD LYME — For more than 25 years, Mervin Roberts has been urging citizens as well as local and state officials to avoid sewers along southeastern Connecticut’s rivers and shoreline. 

Roberts, 97, is a former chair of Old Lyme’s Shellfish Commission, served for 10 years as a selectman and was a founding member of the Conservation Commission. 

He was also a founding member of the town’s Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), where he served for several decades. As chair of the WPCA, he wrote and published several pamphlets on septic waste treatment in Old Lyme. He previously studied water and septic waste treatment at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Roberts and his wife Edith, who were both graduates of Alfred University, moved to Old Lyme in 1960, where they raised six children. Roberts also served as a naval officer during World War II and as chaplain of the town fire department. He was named Old Lyme’s Citizen of the Year in 1998.

He spoke to CT Examiner at his home Thursday afternoon and had prepared several written statements about the town’s wastewater management issues and potential solutions for the Sound View Beach neighborhood. 

Sending effluent to the New London treatment plant, which is the town’s plan if a $9.5 million referendum passes on Aug. 13, will only send “less than clean” water into the Thames River and ultimately into Long Island Sound, but fits with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s plan, he said. 

Rhode Island and Massachusetts have “embraced modern, proved, small systems, legal there but not permitted in this state,” he wrote. “This would eliminate the sewers and force the property owners to maintain their own waste treatment on their own property at their own expense. We already know these systems work and we think we know why Hartford DEP doesn’t want it to work here. Perhaps it would cause somebody in a Hartford corner office to lose his job.” 

Roberts called himself “one small voice in the wilderness” proposing that “nearby aquifers are the best way to avoid the insult to our pocketbook and to our environment.”

“Today we can recycle household sewage on tiny lots and avoid sewers. I fear the plan to sewerize to New London is putting the cart before the horse. What is accomplished by moving septic waste about ten miles and then treating it inadequately and then poisoning the Thames River and Long Island Sound with diluted sewage only after overloading a sewage treatment plant on the way?”

Roberts’ views on avoiding sewers can be traced back to an April 1, 1990 New York Times article by Robert A. Hamilton, entitled “The View from Old Lyme: Sewer System Plan Raises Fears about Pollution of a River.” At the time, Roberts and members of the Shellfish Commission were fighting a potential sewage treatment plant that would have served Clinton, Westbrook and Old Saybrook. The plant’s outflow pipe would have pumped 1.5 million gallons per day of treated effluent into the Connecticut River across from Old Lyme. State environmental laws prohibited the towns from pumping treated sewage directly into Long Island Sound, but allowed outflow into the river.

“On the one hand they’re telling us this stuff is clean. On the other, they’re saying they can’t put it into the Sound,” Roberts was quoted as saying. “That’s talking out of both sides of their mouths. It’s crass and unconscionable hypocrisy.” 

In a Dec. 15, 1994 letter to Governor-elect John Rowland, who served from 1995 to 2004, Roberts argued that the proposed structural sewage plant was “an unnecessary and terribly expensive solution to an easily correctable problem… We believe that the above mentioned discharge will work a hardship on the animal life in this most important marine environment.” The problem is exacerbated by the state government, which splits the authority over wastewater management between DEEP for sewers and the Department of Health for septic systems, “a turf war that goes back a quarter century,” Roberts wrote to Rowland.

“The rules that govern at the local level are based on two separate philosophies…The owner of developed property is sometimes able to pick and choose between the two sets of rules to find the most economical sewage treatment system. This is absurd, and it leads to environmental insults which, in turn, call for draconian solutions.” 

In an open letter to the Old Lyme Land Use Commission, dated Dec. 17, 2015, Roberts was consistent in his objection to the state’s insistence on sewers. “The view of the DEEP seems to be based on their opinion that dilution is the solution to pollution. The Connecticut River is closed to recreational shellfishing because, they neglect to tell us, that the treatment plants they supervise are the source of much of this pollution.” 

He also objected to DEEP’s lack of soil testing and reliance on measuring the density of neighborhoods as the justification for sewers. 

Roberts also argued that a loss of groundwater from sewering could exhaust the aquifer and cause dug wells to dry up. 

“Taxpayers lose as we pay to move wastewater that could easily go back through leach fields into groundwater at no cost to the taxpayers… When sanitary wastewater is sewerized and discharged into a river, we are throwing away a valuable resource that could, and should be, recycled efficiently to improve our environment and save money too.” 

At home, in his July 31, 2019 piece, Roberts echoes the words he wrote in 2015. 

“This same water could be treated where it is generated and put back into the water table for reuse as it is presently being done right here, right now, in this very school complex and also in the Old Lyme Shopping Center on Halls Road… Also smaller treatment plants are now available for individual homesites. They legally work in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island but are not permitted in Connecticut. The Connecticut DEEP wants to retain their jobs in Hartford and that’s the only real problem.”

Roberts objected to letting lakes, reservoirs and aquifers dry up, describing the consequences of sewering as “water we just threw away.” He also criticized the notion that water could easily be purchased from elsewhere.

“Bear in mind that for these past 300 years we have not had to import clean water or export dirty water, we let nature do it for us, close by. We still can,” he said. 

The variations in Old Lyme’s geology must be taken into consideration in finding individualized solutions for septic treatments, which can locally monitored, Roberts said. 

“This plan is wrong because our geology is not like a Midwestern field but rather it is not uniform. No single treatment will resolve all the situations,” he wrote. “In Old Lyme, of less than 30 square miles, we have freshwater marshes, saltwater marshes and granite outcroppings. To treat our geography like a Kansas corn field is an insult on the environment which has served us so well for so long and could continue to serve us well if only we treat each house lot in accordance with its nature. This, I believe, can be done best not from from an office in Hartford or New London but right here in town.”