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Hazardous waste facility raises concern

WINDHAM — A hazardous waste storage facility in Storrs has raised serious concern among a local group that Willimantic’s water supply may be tainted with radioactive or other hazardous materials.

On Thursday night, Donna Nicolina, a member of the Naubesatuck Watershed Council, addressed members of the board of selectmen subcommittee on administration and finance about the council’s concerns.

“This facility raises questions about the quality of Willimantic’s water,” said Nicolina, a Willimantic resident.

The waste storage facility is located off Horsebarn Hill Road in the Fenton River watershed, which supplies water for both the UConn water system and the Willimantic Water Works. The facility serves as a temporary storage area for the University of Connecticut’s waste generated by scientific and engineering departments. The waste is occasionally removed and transported by truck to a permanent disposal facility.

Nicolina showed some photographs of the facility that were taken by Michael Westerfield, director of the housing authority. The photos show several small, metal shed-like structures, some of which are spotted with rust, sitting outdoors. Each one has a yellow sign on it that reads “Caution: Radioactive Material.”

The Naubesatuck Watershed Council, which is made up of Willimantic and Mansfield residents and University of Connecticut students, recently alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection about the storage facility, Nicolina said.

“It’s been there since the mid-1980s and the state didn’t even know it was there until we told them,” she said, adding that the state “grandfathered in” the facility, making it exempt from current regulations.

UConn spokesman Karen Grava said claims that the DEP “didn’t know” the waste storage/collection facility existed are completely false. Grava said it was the DEP who told UConn the facility’s present location was the most suitable because it was in a remote area of campus and therefore less vulnerable to collisions with the collection vehicles which come to the site.

Grava said there has never been a spill of a sealed container of waste at the facility but, if a spill should occur, it would be contained inside the shed which has special flooring and sits on a “concrete pad” foundation. There are also alarms and monitoring devices inside the shed which would alert officials to any problems, she said.

Grava added that a new building is currently being designed to replace the existing facility which the DEP said was “in full compliance” with all environmental regulations after an inspection on Aug. 11.

During the meeting, Susan Johnson, chairman of the subcommittee, said she was concerned by Nicolina’s report and she “had no idea” there was radioactive waste stored so close to the Fenton River.

Johnson said this morning that the radioactive waste was her main concern and she couldn’t understand why UConn doesn’t dispose of such waste in the same manner as Windham Community Memorial Hospital or UConn’s medical school in Farmington. Johnson also said she doesn’t believe the DEP is the proper agency authorized to monitor radioactive waste storage facilities.

“I’m concerned about so much accumulation of low-level radioactive waste on a watershed,” she said. “What happens if there is a flood or storm. From the photographs I’ve seen, the facility looks like a stack of cinder blocks, not a concrete building.”

Now that the issue has been raised, Johnson said her subcommittee will most likely consider a proposal which would authorize the board of selectmen to tell the Willimantic Water Works when to hold a public hearing on important watershed issues. The issue will probably be also discussed by the board’s subcommittee on public health and the environment as well as the full board itself, she said.