Wasting and Polluting a Precious Resource

By FRANK CARINI

Besides the air we breathe, you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that water isn’t the most important resource to our survival. It’s certainly not oil, gold, plastic or high-fructose corn syrup.

But we consistently take H2O for granted. We pour limited financial resources into all matters of infrastructure, but whine about the cost most when it pertains to the pipes/systems that carry and clean our drinking water and wastewater.

It’s appallingly shortsighted.

In Rhode Island, we get pumped and jazzed about spending hundreds of millions to move around a network of crowded highway interchanges to accommodate more SUVs. But we still listen to traffic reports to maneuver around congestion in and around Providence. In fact, we are looking to slash public transit — not improve it — so we can make those new interchanges even more crowded with pollution-spewing cars transporting one person.

We fall over ourselves to give a former major-league pitcher who earned $114 million, not including endorsements, during his career a $75 million loan guarantee to move a still-in-its-infancy video-game company in a high-risk industry from Massachusetts to Rhode Island.

Under the terms of that deal, the state will issue $75 million in bonds, which taxpayers hope will be bought by private investors. The video-game company is responsible for repaying the money … unless it can’t. It would then be the cash-strapped state’s responsibility.

Then-Gov. Donald Carcieri, a staunch defender of the giveaway, acknowledged that the deal is a risk, but one, he said, was worth taking. Of course, he was out of office a few months later — undoubtedly with an autographed baseball in hand — and taxpayers are the responsible ones if this risky deal collapses.

There’s nothing risky, say, about fixing Portsmouth’s failing septic systems and crumbling cesspools. The risk is not doing anything, and evidently that’s the adrenalin rush our elected officials crave.

Last September, the state Department of Environmental Management fined the town of Portsmouth $186,019 for its long-standing failure to prevent or mitigate the discharge of sewage from stormwater drainage pipes in the Island Park and Portsmouth Park neighborhoods. The town also was ordered to complete a facilities plan and initiate construction of a wastewater treatment system.

Nearly a year later, the town still hasn’t done anything to address its ongoing problems of stormwater runoff and failing homeowner sewage systems. Residents haven’t demanded that the problems be addressed. In fact, just the opposite. Some are furious they might have to chip in and help pay to stop their toilet waste from being flushed into local waters.

Decades-long problems with inadequate septic systems and outdated cesspools throughout both neighborhoods have resulted in numerous sewage overflows into the town-owned storm-drain system and subsequently into the Sakonnet River and Blue Bill Cove. As a result, these waters have been closed to shellfish harvesting and subject to a swimming advisory.

The DEM has even provided $300,000 in grant money to Portsmouth and has invested staff resources to assist the town in identifying appropriate solutions.

The local reaction? Mostly whining and blaming the city of Fall River, Mass. Portsmouth has yet to approve any real plan to do anything, and the residents who oppose municipal sewers or, for that matter, any solution to the town’s longstanding wastewater problems are making quite a fuss. Seemingly, they’re more concerned about what might come out of their bank accounts than what might come out of another person’s drinking water well.

They bellyache that the DEM is not interested in the “independence of our community or the state laws that govern bonds. Its objectives remain unchanged: take the pressure off the overburdened Newport system and establish an island wide sewer system.”

Portsmouth Concerned Citizens even brags, “Portsmouth stands in the way” — of making that happen and, thus, of making the state’s swimming, fishing and drinking waters cleaner. They’re all for doing something about a problem they’ve acknowledged exists, as along as someone else does it and they don’t have to pay.

The tactic is much like the statewide approach to removing the 50,000 or so holes in the ground filled with human waste. Cesspools are nothing more than covered pits lined with unmortared brick or stone. They do nothing to treat wastewater. We’ve known this for decades, but all we have done in the meantime to eliminate this environmental problem is resist correcting it.

The General Assembly for years ignored bills and pleas calling for a cesspool phase-out. When it finally did pass the Cesspool Phase-out Act of 2007, its current members used phrases such as “financial burden” and “cost prohibitive” to delay action for another year — until 2014. Apparently, phrases such as “polluted waters” and “closed to swimming” aren’t nearly as costly.

Perhaps if we took our water quality problems more seriously, say, like Bristol has, we’d actually begin to solve them.

Six catch basins were built in the Colt State Park parking lot to slow the flow of rainwater and prevent surges of stormwater from carrying waste and contamination into nearby beach waters. The sewage treatment pipe closest to the park’s beach received a major renovation, including the installation of underground storage tanks to store water during heavy rainfalls.

The town of Bristol also took out a $1 million loan to remove the parking lot at Bristol Town Beach and replace it with an eco-friendly lot that features bioretention swales and specialized vegetation to absorb and filter stormwater.

We can’t ignore this statewide — countrywide, worldwide — problem and hope it goes away. It won’t, not until we make some tough decisions and stop whining about the cost. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually help solve a current problem instead of leaving the mess for future generations to pay for and clean up?

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.