General Assembly Allows Cesspools to Stay Put

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A last-minute push led by Realtors derailed legislation to ban cesspools in Rhode Island.

Amendments to the Cesspool Act of 2007 appeared headed for passage after the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture cleared the bill June 12. The full Senate, however, tabled the bill twice before letting it die altogether. Supporters of the legislation said a late push by the real-estate and banking sectors convinced House and Senate leadership to halt the bill during the final days of the General Assembly’s 2014 session.

“Now we're faced with more closures of swimming beaches and shellfish beds, which are core to Rhode Island's quality of life and economy,” Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy for Save The Bay, said after the Senate failed to vote on the bill.

Some 25,000 cesspool are still in use in the state. As covered pits lined with metal or masonry, they do little to prevent raw sewage from leaching underground and polluting drinking water, swimming areas and natural habitats.   

In 2006, Rhode Island had about 50,000 cesspools, before the General Assembly outlawed all cesspools within 200 feet of a wetland, a drinking-water supply or the coast.

Save The Bay considers the remaining cesspools, especially those in densely built coastal communities such as Warwick, as some of the worst contributors to pollution. In 2013, pollution from cesspools in Warwick was linked to record closures of Oakland Beach on Greenwich Bay.

For years, real-estate agents and homeowners with cesspools have fought proposed mandates to replace cesspools with septic systems or to connect to public sewer systems. A new septic system costs $10,000 to $25,000. A sewer tie-in costs about $1,600, plus annual assessments. State and federal loan programs offer up to $25,000, with interests rates as low as 1 percent. Grants up to $7,500 are available for low-income homeowners.

Proponents of eliminating cesspools have tied compliance to the sale of a property, a time when funds are likely available to absorb the costs. But the local real-estate industry sees linking cesspools to the sale of homes as an impediment.  

“If this is an urgent problem why place the burden only on people who sell their homes?” asked Monica Staaf, legal counsel for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.

She also said too few communities offer a loan program. She suggested Rhode Island offer financial incentives similar to Massachusetts, such as a $6,000 tax credit to repair or replace a cesspool. The credit covers up to 40 percent of the cost spread across four years.

The state Department of Environmental Management, however, offers the low-interest loan funds for sewer connections to all property owners across the state. They do not require a city or town to create a wastewater plan, which is required to offer funding for cesspool replacement.

Hamblett argued that communities that need to replace cesspools, such as Warwick, already offer financial aid, while more cities and towns plan to offer programs by the end of the year. Increasing sewer connections also helps spread the cost of running a municipal sewer system among the users.

In the end, getting rid of cesspools eliminates a health and financial burden, Hamblett said. “It's hard to fathom why the Realtors would oppose a bill that protects public health, protects homebuyers, home sellers and real-estate agents, and increases property values."

He plans to try again next year. “Taking care of Narragansett Bay is part of who we are as Rhode Islanders. It's time for everyone to get on board," Hamblett said.