Brownfield sites pose health, safety hazards officials say at Torrington roundtable talk

By:  Amanda Webster
Register Citizen

TORRINGTON >> U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty held a roundtable discussion at City Hall on Friday to talk about the health and safety hazards that brownfield sites pose for the community.

The discussion was held in wake of a fire that tore through an abandoned factory building in Waterbury, known as the Bristol Co. factory. The fire broke out on Aug. 13 and took firefighters about 12 hours to extinguish, according to several news sources.

Several city representatives gathered at City Hall to discuss ideas on how to combat not only the economic impact of brownfield sites but also the safety risks faced by first responders in case of an emergency, like the incident in Waterbury.

“There are so many ways to talk about brownfields,” Murphy said. “There are so many cases to be made for why the remediation of these sites are so critical to Connecticut’s future.”

The immediate case to be made, according to Murphy, is the case of public safety.

“We’ve seen a disturbing trend line of major fires in big, old, dangerous, polluted factories up and down this corridor,” he said.

Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Pepler said that when he looks at old, abandoned buildings he looks from a firefighting perspective as opposed to an economic perspective.

“I look at risk assessment,” he said.

Part of the problem with the abandoned buildings is that they become a refuge for the growing homeless population in Torrington, according to Pepler, and that many fires are caused by those living inside the buildings. Because some of the old buildings are occupied by homeless individuals, should a fire break out, firefighters may need to enter the buildings and expose themselves to health and safety risks, he said.

The major obstacle faced by municipalities in the clean-up of these sites is finding the property owner and then making that owner accept responsibility for clean-up efforts, officials said.

State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-65, questioned the implementation of a timeline that would allow municipalities to act on a property after a certain amount of time has gone by with no action on the part of the property owner.

“I just think that it’s absolutely ridiculous that as a taxpayer in this municipality, that I can drive up and down the street and I’m responsible for maintaining everything I have on my property, but this guy is not and we have no recourse,” she said, referring to absentee-owners. “And he can not be for 40 or 50 years.”

Cost is also a factor that prevents immediate resolve for blighted and dangerous properties.

“Right now, clean-up costs are pretty considerable,” said Esty. “We want to get some urgency around this. There hasn’t been sufficient funding.”