Monday, September 20, 2010

Portsmouth Wastewater Woes

Last week, RIDEM issued a notice of violation including a $186,019 fine for discharge of sewage from storm water pipes, mostly in the Island Park and Portsmouth Park neighborhoods at the north end.

Save The Bay has been advocating for practical solutions to the wastewater problems on Aquidneck Island for years, and progress has been frustratingly slow, mostly due to financial constraints (Rhode Island has very little money allocated for this, and there is ever-increasing competition for federal funds).

There has also been a strong anti-sewering movement in Portsmouth. Opponents of sewers argue that the costs would be prohibitive and that the environmental benefits can't be demonstrated nor justified.

The state's position is that the pollution is illegal, represents a public and environmental health hazard, and that sewers represent the only practical approach to compliance.

We agree with RIDEM and USEPA that taking real action to clean up the sewage in these beautiful shoreside communties is long-overdue.

This enforcement action should serve as a catalyst. The fines themselves do not represent solutions- the solutions have to address and eliminate the pollution at its source.

We are committed to helping the town of Portsmouth meet these challenges and will work to identify funding and to nail down a strategy that will be fair and effective. We believe this is an opportunity to break the political and regulatory stalemate that has blocked progress on these issues and to engage in constructive actions to treat wastewater and stormwater there.

Jonathan Stone's statement on this follows, as well as the official press release from RIDEM. Stay tuned for more on this developing story...

Save The Bay statement regarding DEM's Portsmouth pollution fine Department of Environmental Protection fines Portsmouth $190,000 for water pollution


"Save The Bay appreciates and recognizes the efforts of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to address these long-standing and well-documented wastewater pollution problems in Portsmouth."

"We have long advocated for strong action to protect the Bay and public health in this area.This notice of violation underscores the seriousness of the problems in Portsmouth, but it alone does not represent the solution."

"We urge Portsmouth to act quickly to adopt the recommendations of the Town's engineering consultants, Woodard and Curran, in addition to the steps required by this enforcement action."

"Save The Bay, along with its members and supporters on Aquidneck Island and region-wide, are committed to helping Portsmouth by working to identify the funding and resources necessary to protect our waters. We will work with the town as well as state and federal agencies to ensure prompt action and accountability.”

News ReleaseRI Department of Environmental Management

235 Promenade Street, Providence, RI 02908(401) 222-2771 TDD/(401) 222-4462

For Release:
September 16, 2010
Gail Mastrati 222-4700 ext. 2402


The Department of Environmental Management has issued a Notice of Violation to the Town of Portsmouth for its long-standing failure to prevent or mitigate the discharge of sewage from storm water drainage pipes in the Island Park and Portsmouth Park neighborhoods into The Cove and Sakonnet River.

The Notice orders the Town to complete a facilities plan and initiate construction of a wastewater treatment system, and assesses a penalty of $186,019.

Decades-long problems with inadequate on-site sewage treatment throughout these neighborhoods have resulted in numerous overflows of sewage into the Town-owned storm drain system and subsequently into The Cove and Sakonnet River. As a result, these waters have been closed to shellfish harvesting and subject to a swimming advisory.

These waters are considered class SA surface water bodies and their designated uses include shellfish harvesting for direct human consumption and primary contact recreation.

DEM has provided over $300,000 in grant funds to Portsmouth and has invested significant staff resources to assist the Town in identifying appropriate solutions. As a condition of the most recent grant, the Town was required to submit a final wastewater facilities plan to DEM.

In December 2009 the Town's consultant, Woodard & Curran submitted the wastewater facilities plan to the Town which documented that certain areas of Town, including Portsmouth Park and Island Park, require sewer service.

The Plan said that a "no-build" alternative, under which cesspools would be removed and replaced with upgraded on-site systems and a Wastewater Management District would be implemented, will likely result in continued fecal coliform contamination in the Sakonnet River and The Cove. However, the Portsmouth Town Council has decided to not submit the wastewater facilities plan to DEM and instead continue with the use of onsite wastewater systems and develop a wastewater management district ordinance.

"DEM has been working diligently with the Town to resolve this problem for many years, but unfortunately the Town has decided to disregard the recommendations of numerous engineering studies which point to sewers as the only viable solution for appropriate wastewater disposal in the Portsmouth Park and Island Park neighborhoods," said DEM Director W. Michael Sullivan, PhD.

Following many years of coordination with the Town, in May 2005 the Town was informed of the US Environmental Protection Agency's approval of the DEM completed water quality restoration plan for the Sakonnet River at Portsmouth Park and the Cove at Island Park to address the impacts to shellfish harvesting and swimming from improperly treated sewage.

The restoration plan recommended that the Town complete a comprehensive town-wide wastewater facilities plan and storm water management strategy and eliminate illicit connections to its storm drain system.

"EPA supports the work being done by DEM to require construction of a wastewater treatment plant in Portsmouth. Protecting our water from such basic pollutants as raw sewage is obviously in the best interests of the Town, the health of Rhode Island citizens and the health and vitality of our environment. All across New England, it's a priority to take sensible actions to ensure a clean and healthy environment that is the foundation of a strong economy," said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England office.

History of Water Pollution in the Sakonnet River and The Cove

The inadequate sewage disposal problems were first documented by DEM or the US FDA in 1965 during a shoreline survey of Island Park and Portsmouth Park. In Island Park - a high-density residential neighborhood in a flat seaside area - 13 storm water drainage pipes convey storm water from throughout the neighborhood to The Cove and the Sakonnet River.

In Portsmouth Park - a medium/high density residential area on a hillside - five storm water drainage pipes convey storm water from throughout the neighborhood to the Sakonnet River. The pipes, known as the Island Park/Portsmouth Park storm water drainage system, are owned by the Town.Surveys conducted from 1965 to the present continue to document water pollution violations. Due to evidence of inadequate sewage disposal and actual and potential pollutant sources discovered during shoreline surveys, DEM determined that waters in the vicinity of Portsmouth Park and Island Park did not meet applicable National Shellfish Sanitation Program requirements and closed these waters to shellfish harvesting.

Beginning in 1973 the Sakonnet River along the shorelines of Island Park was closed to shellfish harvesting, and the area was expanded to include additional waters off Portsmouth Park in 1988; both areas have remained closed since that time. In 1980 shellfish grounds in the southern portion of The Cove were and still remain closed.

The evidence of sewage in the drainage pipes and groundwater seeps along the shorelines of Island Park and Portsmouth Park have also resulted in the issuance of a swimming advisory in the area by the Department of Health. The shellfish harvesting prohibitions affected 109 acres in The Cove and 180 acres in the Sakonnet River.

The most recent evidence of this ongoing water pollution was documented by DEM last month. On August 26, DEM inspected a property at Aquidneck Avenue in Portsmouth and found that sewage from the property's onsite wastewater treatment system was discharging onto the ground and into one of the Portsmouth Park pipes.

The DEM inspector observed that sewage was directly entering into the Sakonnet River.Within 30 days of receipt of the Notice of Violation, the Town is ordered to submit a report of the final findings of the Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) program, revise and submit the Onsite Wastewater Management Plan to be consistent with the Wastewater Facilities Plan, and submit a Wastewater Facilities Plan and response to comments.

The Town is also ordered to submit an Order of Approval Application for a wastewater treatment facility serving Island Park and Portsmouth Park within two years of DEM's approval of the Wastewater Facilities Plan, and to complete construction within three years of issuance of an Order of Approval.