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Sewage and flooding issues affect Hartford's North End. Residents say it's environmental racism.

Local Resident Flood Meeting
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Sharon Lewis, an environmental advocate, shared her story of losing some of her most prized possessions, family heirlooms and her entire home due to sewage flooding. She has been forced to live out of a hotel for over a month.

Residents of Hartford's North End are calling out local agencies and the city regarding a series of flooding and sewage problems in their neighborhood.

More than 50 residents and business owners recently met at the American Legion in the North End to express their frustration in front of various officials, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and representatives from the Metropolitan District Commission, which provides water service to Hartford.

Residents say they've been complaining for some time regarding flooding and sewage issues. Aging sewage pipes have not been upgraded, and residents say their homes have been flooded with human waste.

They say communities of color, specifically Black and Latino residents in the North End, are disproportionately affected by unhealthy living conditions.

During the meeting, people in tears said they have lost valuables, such as family memorabilia, and personal items. Collectors also say they have lost African American relics.

"It's not just because African American or Latino people are affected," said Cynthia R. Jennings, a civil rights and environmental attorney. "It's that the entire community, whoever gets hit with that, is going to get affected with that bill."

In a statement, the Metropolitan District Commission said that residents' concerns stem from significant storm events, during which a lot of rain fell in a short amount of time.

The MDC said commissioners and ratepayers have approved $1.6 billion for wastewater infrastructure upgrades as part of the Clean Water Project, and most of those upgrades are for projects within Hartford.

"There are legitimate combined sewer backups in basements which will be addressed during the next phase" of the Clean Water Project, the district statement said.

The MDC said it "wants to be part of the solution." But the agency said stormwater, which is the primary cause of basement backups and street flooding, can't be addressed through just the Clean Water Project.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin did not attend the meeting, but his office released a statement saying that the city set up a $500,000 Flood Mitigation Assistance Program to help residents affected by flooding in 2021.

"We will continue to push and advocate for the investments required to build a stormwater system capable of handling the severe weather events that climate change is making more and more common," the statement said.

The mayor's office said its "biggest concern" is that the MDC is poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sewer separation "without addressing the increasingly urgent challenge of flooding for residents — and that would be an enormous missed opportunity."

Local Resident Flood Meeting
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal listens to local residents and business owners gathered at the McKinney King American Legion in Hartford for a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding flooding and sewage problems that are going unaddressed.

Blumenthal said federal funding could help with water projects in Hartford and across the U.S. He points to $1.2 trillion from bipartisan legislation passed by Congress, some of which is designed to help fund infrastructure projects.

Blumenthal said it's important for various agencies to work together on solutions.

"I think it is time for us to bring together everyone who has a responsibility, and everyone has a responsibility, local, federal, state, MDC," Blumenthal said. "We need to get that act together and make sure those resources are available."

Blumenthal said that what's happening in the North End is an environmental justice issue.

"What I found in enforcing the environmental laws is that protecting the people depends on the advocates and the activists," Blumenthal said.

According to researchers at Princeton University, communities of color in the United States are more likely to die of unhealthy environmental causes.

"Residents have asthma, low birth rates and chronic diseases because of the decisions being made at the state, local, and federal levels," said Juliemar Ortiz, PT Partners activist and youth organizer.

North End residents say that people in parts of Connecticut are affected by environmental racism; they say that if what's been happening in the North End happened in affluent cities, the issue would be solved quickly.

Hartford is facing a potential catastrophe due to the problems in the North End, said Bridgitte Prince, who helped organize the community forum.

Prince is also concerned that elected officials aren't focused enough on what North End residents are facing.

"The only time you wanna show up in this district, the only time you wanna show up in this form and sit at the table, is when it's time for votes, but you don't do anything with the situation," Prince said.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, environmentalists and other groups sent a letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly, asking for legislative action on a stronger environmental justice law for Connecticut.

"We mobilize now in support of a stronger environmental justice law that will protect the most environmentally and economically distressed communities from added hazards to their health and wellbeing," the letter said.

Local Resident Flood Meeting
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Local residents and business owners brought images of flood damage to the McKinney King American Legion in Hartford for a meeting to discuss the issues surrounding flooding and sewage problems that are going unaddressed.

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