Lyme-Old Lyme School Officials Offer an Update on Oil Spill, Cleanup


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LYME-OLD LYME — A permit approved Tuesday by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will allow the Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools to install a “pump and treat” system behind the middle school,, a solution that the environmental contractor hired by the district said he hopes to have operational by early September. 

David Turner, a Licensed Environmental Professional and owner of Turner Environmental, told local neighbors and elected officials on Tuesday that he had submitted an application to the agency and received “favorable feedback” from people involved in the permitting, and that he believed a permit approval was “imminent.” He said he hoped to be able to begin installing the equipment in August. 

Will Healey, spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, confirmed to CT Examiner in an email that the permit for the pump and treat system was processed and approved. 

Last August, an oil spill in the middle school boiler room released about 700 gallons of oil, some of which spilled into the soil around the school. The spill came to the attention of neighboring residents in January, when they received a letter from Kropp Environmental Contractors informing them that the company would need to take samples of their well water “out of an abundance of caution.” 

A June 15 update from Turner Environmental found “free product” — the type of oil used in the boiler room — in a recovery well in the boiler room and in a monitoring well nearby. Turner notes that the wells were vacuumed later in June to remove that oil. The “pump and treat” system will be used to clean groundwater in the area. 

The “pump and treat” system will run groundwater through carbon filters to extract any residual oil, and then discharge the clean water into a stormwater retention basin. Turner said the system would include two filters so the water would continue to be cleaned even if one of the filters expired. 

“We know there are a lot of shallow wells in the area, and I don’t want to remove tens of thousands of gallons of water from the system,” said Turner. “So the whole idea is that the water here, [which] we know has some dissolved contamination from exposure to oil, will get filtered through a water separator and big carbon vessels to remove all that.”

He said he expected the system to be in place for about three years. School Superintendent Ian Neviaser told CT Examiner in an email that the pump and treat system would cost about $150,000 yearly to install and operate. 

Denise Tooker Ogden, whose mother, Judy Tooker, owns 63 and 67 Lyme Street, properties adjacent to the school, said she was concerned because there are shallow wells on her property, which Turner acknowledged were more likely to be affected than deeper wells.  

“Shallow wells, because oil floats, are more at risk, because we believe that this stuff is in the top 10 or 15 feet of the water column, and that’s where the wells will get their water,” said Turner. 

Turner said he was regularly testing drinking wells, and that none of them had been found to be contaminated. 

Benzene has been found in three of the monitoring wells drilled in the area — one in front of the middle school, one on the other side of the high school road, and one on the property of 63 Lyme Street. The highest concentration found was 6 parts per billion. 

Turner reiterated to those present at the meeting that he believed the benzene found in the monitoring wells came from a “historical” spill, not the recent one last August. He said he was finding higher concentrations of benzene in areas further away from the spill, indicating that the benzene had moved away from the source — which he said only happens over time. 

“Typically you would think that a plume that’s growing would have higher concentrations nearer to the source. And that’s not necessarily what I’m finding,” said Turner. 

As for the wells on the neighboring properties, Turner said, those would need to continue to be monitored regularly until he and the state could agree on a plan to remediate the residual benzene. 

Turner said he would need to offer a “remedial alternatives analysis” to the agency, listing what he found  which he planned to have completed within the next six months. But he said he didn’t know how long it would take to get the analysis approved. 

Turner said he’d offered a few different remediation options to the state agency. One would require injecting carbon into the ground to absorb the benzene, which Turner said could be problematic because it could leave carbon compounds behind in the soil. Another solution would be to use nitrates that would allow bacteria to break the benzene down — although Turner acknowledged that nitrates “aren’t great.” A third would be the addition of compounds that add oxygen, also allowing bacteria to break down the benzene. 

Healey said that the options for decontaminating the groundwater were “being assessed by the Licensed Environmental Professional (LEP) who is in contact with applicable state and local health and environmental officials.” 

Neighbors in attendance at the meeting complained that no one had reached out to tell them that there was going to be a meeting on Tuesday. 

“You talk about transparency, but we weren’t notified of this meeting,” said Ogden. “I mean, we just want to know what’s going on and if our water is going to be harmful. Why weren’t we told at this meeting?” 

School officials replied that the agenda for the meeting had been posted on the website. Board of Education member Mary Powell St. Louis noted that the facilities committee was not obliged to send emailed notifications to people informing them of a meeting, and Board of Finance Chair Alan Shyness said meetings were publicly posted, but that notifications didn’t go directly to people’s homes.

Deborah Wade, who also lives on Lyme Street, said she didn’t understand why it had taken so long to clean up the spill, and why Kropp had stopped digging without extracting all of the residual oil. 

“I don’t understand why it wasn’t all nipped in the bud last August,” she said. 

Turner said that Kropp had excavated part of the area around the spill and performed tests, and that DEEP had authorized the company to fill in the hole. But Turner said that when he began testing around February or March, he found high concentrations of contaminants, and decided to expand the area of the dig. 

Healey said that DEEP would not be involved in authorizing Kropp to fill in the hole, but that “generally speaking, excavations can present a hazard if left open for extended time periods and are typically not left open for safety reasons.” 

Board of Education Chair Steven Wilson disagreed with suggestions that the cleanup had proceeded slowly. He said he knew of other spills in town whose cleanup had taken years. 

“I don’t think anything’s been mishandled here. I think everything that’s been done has been done properly — professionally,” he said. 

Shyness agreed.

“I don’t know that there’s anything in the history that says that people were advised to do one thing and chose to do something less invasive instead,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate, but we are getting positive indications from the remediations. And what was just described to us is by no means a band-aid. I mean, this is being hit with whatever sledgehammer it takes to do.”

Neviaser said the district was sending monthly updates to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He said that, because the spill took place on school property and could affect children, he believed the agency was taking more of an interest than usual in the spill. 

“Which is, again, fine with us,” said Neviaser.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.