LAWRENCE – Two prominent commercial buildings owned by two of the city’s top landlords and businessmen may have discharged thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the Merrimack River daily for as long as a decade. The state allowed the discharges to continue for nearly two years after they were reported, documents show.
The story of how it happened is one of finger-pointing and foot-dragging, reversals and contradictions, improbable explanations, lax enforcement, a few well-timed campaign contributions and daily assaults on an iconic river already suffering from the more sizable discharges of sewage by municipal systems that occur with almost every rainfall.
The latest reversal came Wednesday, when a lawyer for Luis and Juan Yepez, who own the buildings at 1 Union St. and 60 Island St. that were discharging into the river, said they would miss the Dec. 31 deadline to tie the buildings into a nearby sewage main operated by the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District. Until then, the Yepez brothers will pump the sewage out of the raceways below their buildings into trucks, as they have been doing once a week since May or June and twice a week since September, when they signed a consent decree with the state Department of Environmental Protection to stop the discharges and begin pumping.
The Yepezes signed the decree with the DEP on Sept. 12, the day before a series of gas explosions destroyed or damaged dozens of buildings in Lawrence and the Andovers and left more than 8,000 of the buildings without heat and hot water. The ongoing reconstruction has diverted technicians, construction crews and other resources, leaving the Yepez brothers with no one to connect their buildings to the sewer district’s main, their lawyer said in a letter to the DEP on Wednesday.
The lawyer, Jeffrey Renton, asked the agency to extend the deadline for connecting to the main by seven months, to July 31. DEP spokesman Ed Coletta declined to comment on the request.
Juan and Luis Yepez declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ironically, one of their tenants is the Merrimack River Watershed Council, a leading advocate for the river. Executive Director Rusty Russell on Friday expressed concern about both the discharges into the river by his landlords and the slow government response.
“Taking two years to clear up an obvious sewage pollution problem that is a direct violation of the (federal) Clean Water Act is concerning,” he said, referring to the time that lapsed between when the DEP got a heads up about the problem and when it signed the consent decree requiring the Yepezes to stop the discharges and begin pumping. “There are condos and businesses, Sal’s restaurant, downstream from this problem. That’s not an impressive calling card to say we’re on the banks of a river with raw sewage flowing into it.”
There is no record of when the sewage discharges into the Merrimack began, but records suggest it may have been as early as 2010. That’s when Lawrence Community Works, a local nonprofit developer, sold the Yepezes 1 Union St., a 63,000-square-foot building adjacent to another building LCW owns at 50 Island St.
The sewage pipes serving both buildings were connected for decades, until LCW severed the tie as it began renovating its building. The conditions imposed by the state and federal grants LCW needed to afford the renovation required its building to be free-standing of any other building that was not historically preserved, according to Jessica Andors, the agency’s executive director. When the Yepez brothers declined her invitation to join the preservation effort because of the limits on renovating their building the grants would impose, Andors said she cut the sewage connection.
The brothers reacted by connecting their sewage pipes to pipes under another adjacent building they owned at 60 Island St., which they believed discharged into the collection main operated by the sanitary district, Renton said. He said plans showed it was.
It was not. The building at 60 Island Street has never been connected to the main.
The cement raceways under these old buildings along the Merrimack once carried river water to spin the turbines that powered the mills. Now, sewage began building up in the raceway under the Yepez buildings, then flowed into a pipe that discharged underwater into the river, according to the consent decree.
On Oct. 12, 2016 – more than six years after LCW plugged the connection to the Yepez sewage pipes – a city engineering contractor on a routine inspection discovered a “cloudy discharge” from the pipe that had become exposed during the unusually dry summer. The contractor, working for Woodard & Curran of Andover, estimated that the discharge was up to five gallons a minute, or 2,400 gallons over an eight-hour workday. The two buildings together are 122,690 square feet, with 78 units rented.
The contractor alerted the DEP, which dispatched inspectors the next day. A lab confirmed the samples they collected contained untreated sewage. Dye tests confirmed the sewage was coming from the Yepez buildings.
Years of wrangling
What unfolded was two years of wrangling between the DEP and the Yepez brothers, their lawyers and engineer, with little result. The engineer, Robert Griffin, at one point denied the sewage discharge was coming from the Yepez buildings, the consent decree says. Griffin backed off when the DEP provided him with photos and data, the decree says.
Much of the first year was consumed by efforts to overcome technical hurdles, made more complicated because the city could find no accurate records of the piping under the buildings that was installed in the 1970s, the consent decree says.
The first sign of progress came in the summer of 2017, when Griffin said the Yepez brothers would reconnect their sewage lines to the lines owned by Lawrence Community Works by March 2018, the consent decree says.
But the negotiations with LCW failed, again, when the Yepez brothers rejected the compensation LCW wanted, the consent decree says. The compensation included a deeded right to 20 parking spaces the Yepezes own in a lot they share with LCW outside their buildings.
The decision by the Yepezes to reject LCW’s offer was about more than the convenience of parking, Renton said. Giving up the spaces could have left the Yepezes unable to obtain the approvals from the city they need to rent remaining empty spaces in their buildings.
The brothers reversed course and said they would seek to connect their buildings to the sanitary district’s sewer main.
Engineers for the district initially resisted, expressing concerns about allowing a new direct connection to its 50-year-old main. The district had not allowed a connection to the main in more than a decade. The district’s concerns included the risk posed by drilling into the aging main, which could cause “a catastrophe” if it went wrong, said Brian Pena, Lawrence’s water and sewer commissioner. New connections typically are made to municipal sewage lines, which then feed into the much larger district mains.
“It’s a concern,” said Cheri Cousens, executive director of the sewer district. “The district is balancing serving our communities with safeguarding our infrastructure.”
Accessing the main
But after another lawyer for the Yepez brothers told the district’s board of directors that there were no feasible alternatives, the board voted 7-to-1 on May 30 to approve the connection. The permit will allow the Yepez buildings to deliver 14,300 gallons daily to the main. Renton said the number is high and not a good indicator of what the buildings have been discharging.
If the lawyer, Robert Lavoie, told the board that the infeasible alternatives included an offer by LCW to reconnect the Yepez buildings to their sewer main in exchange for 20 parking spaces, it’s not in the minutes.
“I don’t know the value of 20 parking spaces,” said Pena, who sits on the sewer district’s board and said he was not aware that the Yepezes had rejected an offer to reconnect to the LCW sewer line in exchange for the parking when he voted to allow them to connect to the district’s main. “I know the value of clean water. I’d say clean water is worth 20 parking spaces.”
The minutes of the board meeting show Lavoie also suggested Juan and Luis Yepez were unwitting victims of it all, beginning when he said they were unaware their connection to the sewer lines at LCW’s building had been severed until the DEP showed up six years later to confront them about their discharges into the Merrimack River.
The connections were severed “without the Yepezes or anyone else knowing,” Lavoie told the board. “The Yepezes were never informed.”
That statement, apparently an effort to sway the board, contradicts statements by Andors, the LCW executive director, that she told the Yepez brothers that she would have to cut the connection in 2010 if they would not join her historic preservation effort.
It also appears to contradict Renton’s contention that after rejecting LCW’s offer in 2010 to maintain the connection, the brothers obtained a permit from the city to connect to the sewage pipes under the adjacent building they owned at 60 Island St., which they believed was connected to the sewer district main.
“I don’t believe that’s what attorney Lavoie meant,” Renton said when asked about the contradictions. “Minutes are minutes. They don’t always capture the flavor. They’re not verbatim.”
Lavoie could not be reached Friday.
The Yepezes had another advocate at the sewer district’s board meeting in May: Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who sent his chief of staff, Eileen Bernal, to deliver a letter asking the board to approve the connection to the district’s main.
A few months later, on Aug. 12, Luis and Juan Yepez each sent $1,000 checks – the maximum the law allows – to Rivera’s campaign organization, Rivera’s financial disclosure forms show. The contributions were the first by either man to Rivera and their first political contribution to any campaign organization in five years, records on file with the state office of Campaign and Political Finance show.
Rivera said there is no connection between the advocacy he provided the Yepez brothers and their contributions.
“There are hundreds of businesses I help because they’re in my community,” Rivera said. “People who don’t contribute (to my campaign), I support. There are businesses across the community dealing with age-old problems. We figure out how to solve it for them. People appreciate that when they bring us a hard problem, we figure out a way to get it squared away.”
‘Inadvertent septic system’
The consent decree the Yepezes signed makes several references to the sewage discharges from their buildings into the Merrimack River, but also contains a clause stating that the two men entered into the order without admitting to “the facts or allegations set forth herein.”
Their denials continued this week, when Renton noted that their discharge to the river was seen only once, when the consulting engineer working for the city noticed it on Oct. 12, 2016, at a time the outfall pipe was exposed because the river was exceptionally low. Before then, Renton said the sewage may have seeped into the ground through cracks in the concrete raceways beneath the Yepez buildings and so never reached the Merrimack. He likened that scenario to a hiker who digs a hole to in the earth to relieve himself and walks way, which he referred to as an “inadvertent septic system.”
Coletta, the DEP spokesman, responded: “MassDEP is very confident that this discharge was regularly occurring and discharging to the river, and the sewage from the buildings was not being absorbed by the ground.”
Still, the record shows the DEP was slow to enforce the state and federal clean water regulations to stop the dumping into the Merrimack.
The consent decree the Yepez brothers signed with the DEP required that on Sept 20, they begin pumping the sewage out of the raceways under their buildings so that it could be delivered to a treatment plant. Before then, over the two years since the discharge was discovered, the Yepezes were allowed to continue dumping into the Merrimack.
Coletta said it took the DEP so long to require the Yepezes to divert the sewage from the Merrimack and pump it into trucks because the agency hoped the city would be able to resolve the issue on its own.
“They tried their best,” Coletta said. “Eventually, it just kept going on and on. That’s when we decided to step in and get the consent decree and set a time frame to get this thing done. It had taken too long.”
Rivera rejected the suggestion that the city was slow to act, or even had a role to play.
“The DEP has incredible powers,” Rivera said. “I don’t know when the last time was that the DEP found something negligent and abdicated their authority to a municipality to fix it.”
In the meantime, there is growing public awareness about the millions of gallons of untreated sewage dumped annually into the Merrimack by six treatment plants during storms, when they are unable to handle the combined volume of street runoff water and sewage from municipal systems that collect them both. This year, the plants are projected to dump a total of 750 million gallons of sewage into the river. The plants include the regional one in North Andover operated by the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District and another operated by the city of Haverhill.
Renton noted that whatever was dumped by 1 Union St. and 60 Island St. was a fraction of what the six plants dump with every rainfall.
“Every time we get a heavy rain, there are bathtubs (of sewage dumped by the treatment plants ) compared to a thimble from these properties,” he said. “People with 20/20 hindsight may be critical of anything that’s happened in the past, but it’s not fair or consistent considering the sewage problem in the river attributed to the massive releases from these public plants.”