R.I. Waters are No Day at the Beach

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

At first glance, the upfront numbers seem impressive.

Saltwater beach days lost to contaminated swimming waters decreased 35 percent last summer from 2009. Rhode Island has spent about $360 million on the State Tunnel Project, which has helped address Providence’s combined sewer overflow problems and improved the water quality in upper Narragansett Bay. The city of Warwick has connected some 8,000 homes in the Greenwich Bay area to the municipal sewer system.

State Department of Health (DOH) 2010 bacteria monitoring data showed that Providence River beaches at Sabin Point and Crescent Park in East Providence and Gaspee Point in Warwick met safe swimming standards 85 percent of the time.

King Park Beach in Newport, which had been closed to swimming since 2004 because of persistent high bacteria counts, welcomed swimmers back July 2.

The city of Newport has invested nearly $6 million in an ultraviolet treatment system to reduce bacteria levels from stormwater that discharges into Easton’s Beach. The town of Bristol has installed rain gardens.

The percentage of health standard exceedances — the number of times unsafe levels of bacterial contamination from enterococci and/or fecal coliform were found in tested saltwater beaches — decreased to 8 percent in 2010 from 20 percent the previous year. Rhode Island ranked (lowest to highest) 18th in the nation for the number of samples exceeding national standards last year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. (States with the highest rates of reported contamination in 2010 were Louisiana, 37 percent exceeding health standards; Ohio, 21 percent; and Indiana, 16 percent.)

Since summer 2003, when Rhode Island witnessed a record number of beach closures, Greenwich Bay experienced a massive fish kill and the health of Narragansett Bay was in question, the Ocean State has thrown substantial money at its water pollution problems.

This work to improve water quality at Rhode Island's saltwater beaches has resulted in a 36 percent decrease in beach closures since 2006.

"This is wonderful progress, but our goal of permanently eliminating beach closures is still years away. Wastewater, stormwater, and nutrients continue to plague our shores," according to the Narragansett Bay Watershed Counts, a coalition of agencies and organizations committed to work together to examine and report regularly on the condition of the land and water resources of the Narragansett Bay watershed.

Murky waters
Despite all of the efforts made in the past eight years, the results can be misleading.

Contamination from human waste — via failing septic systems, outdated cesspools, overrun wastewater treatment facilities and malfunctioning sewer infrastructure — animal waste and other sources has impaired 57 fresh waters in Rhode Island, rendering them unable to meet federal water quality standards. In all, the state has documented water quality impairments in 112 water bodies.

The Woonasquatucket River, which forms the border between Johnston and North Providence, has widespread dioxin contamination. The DOH recommends that the public not eat fish caught from the river south of the Johnston/Smithfield line.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) felt compelled, at the end of June, to send out a press notice reminding the public to use the Woonasquatucket River responsibly. Specifically, the notice read, residents of Johnston, North Providence and Providence should keep in mind that contamination in and along the river may pose a health risk.

Illnesses associated with polluted beach water include skin rashes, stomach flu, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis.

The fewer saltwater beach days lost to contamination last year — 150 vs. 230 in 2009 — can largely be attributed to weather. Last summer (May 28-Sept. 6), total rainfall was 13.42 inches, nearly 4 inches less than in 2009. The number of significant rainfalls — a half-inch or more in 24 hours — also fell from 13 to 11.

Less rain means less pollution makes its way into our waters. “Weather is a big factor, and it changes by the year,” said Amie Parris, the DOH’s beach program coordinator. “A dry summer means less beach closures. More rain means more runoff.”

Flood of pollutants
Stormwater is created when heavy rain flows over development — driveways, sidewalks, rooftops, highways and parking lots — collecting pollutants such as petroleum, heavy metals, animal waste, chemicals and debris. This concoction of water and waste is typically channeled into storm drains, discharging via outfalls into an unfortunate water body — i.e., the five outfall pipes that discharge into Scarborough Beach.

In all, Rhode Island has 64 such discharge sites from Bristol to Woonsocket, including 13 in Providence, according to 2010 DOH figures.

The Department of Health discourages swimming in the upper bay, north of Conimicut Point in Warwick, including the beaches at Sabin Point, Crescent Park and Gaspee Point. These waters are directly affected by pollution inputs due to heavy rains and discharges from area wastewater treatment facilities. State officials also recommend water contact should be avoided for a minimum of three days after heavy rainfall.

In communities such as Narragansett and Newport with combined sewage overflow (CSO) treatment plants, both stormwater and sewage go to such a facility to be treated. However, when there is heavy rain, the amount of stormwater can overwhelm the system resulting in a discharge of raw or partially treated sewage.

The EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater flow into U.S. surface waters annually. In addition, another 850 billion gallons of wastewater are released every year from CSOs.

In the past decade, the city of Newport has spent nearly $40 million on various CSO projects. But there is an ongoing debate as to whether that money has kept beach water contamination at bay.

Last month, the Alliance for a Livable Newport held a “CSO Accountability Forum” to discuss the “continuing historic incidence” of overflows since 2004. At that meeting, alliance board member John McCain gave a presentation that claimed there is no empirical data to support that the millions spent on projects, including the new UV system that went on line in May, have reduced CSO discharges.

Easton’s Beach was closed June 24 and King Park on July 15 because bacteria levels rose above acceptable levels. Unsafe bacteria levels at Easton’s Beach’s Middletown neighbor, Atlantic Beach Club, have closed that beach for three days this summer.

So far this summer, Rhode Island has lost more than 60 beach swimming days to polluted waters.

Contaminated beach waters, however, aren’t isolated to the Ocean State’s salt waters. The three Rhode Island beaches currently closed to swimming are all freshwater spots — Gorton Pond Beach in Warwick, closed since June 16; Governor Notte Park Beach in North Providence, closed since June 30; and Camp Canonicus in Exeter, closed since July 13.

Last summer, of the 292 samples the DOH collected at 43 freshwater beaches, 32 of them (12 percent) exceeded unsafe bacterial levels. The freshwater beaches with the most excedences were Governor Notte Park (7), Lincoln Woods State Park (6) and the Kent County YMCA (6).

“America’s beaches have long suffered from pollution — the difference is now we know what to do about it,” said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Jon Devine. “By making our communities literally greener on land we can make the water at the beach cleaner. In the years to come, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this dirty legacy.”

Last year, America’s beaches — both fresh and salt water — witnessed the second-highest number of closing and advisory days in more than two decades, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 21st annual beach water quality report.

The best way to keep pollution out U.S. beach water is to prevent it from getting there by investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land, such as porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels, according to the NRDC report.

“Rhode Islanders know that a healthy (Narragansett) Bay means clean beaches and a vibrant tourism economy. Sixteen million people visit Rhode Island each year to enjoy our beaches, seafood and water sports, creating 55,000 jobs and injecting $6.8 billion into our economy,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said. “We’ve made great strides in reducing wastewater pollution into Narragansett Bay, but this report reminds us of the progress still to be made to protect our economy and our environment.”

Going Green
Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. This type of infrastructure also keeps rain from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows. These smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach they also beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, and save on heating and cooling energy costs, the NRDC report stated. 

The ills of careless and antiquated development also spill over into the state’s rural and not-so-rural backyards. A vast network of cesspools and septic systems, some of the oldest wastewater infrastructure in the nation, handles nearly a third of Rhode Island’s household disposal of sewage and wastewater.

Miles of century-old underground water and sewer lines — much of it made of wooden and brick pipes and much of them layered with a buildup of crud — have sprung leaks because they are eroding, crumbling and collapsing.

Even a cesspool in pristine condition is nothing more than a covered hole or pit lined with unmortared brick or stone and filled with human waste. They do little to keep wastewater pathogens out of nearby wells and waters. When the water table rises, human waste sitting in cesspools mixes with groundwater. To keep this wastewater from collecting near homes, there often is an illegal drain nearby to redirect this puddling effluent to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. Much of it eventually ends up in brooks, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes, or even in a nearby drinking water well.

In Portsmouth, where the neighborhoods of Portsmouth Park and Island Park lack municipal sewer, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has documented evidence of human sewage in storm-drain outfalls and groundwater seeps along the shorelines in both those areas.

The DEM has even insisted that Portsmouth install sewers in both those neighborhoods because contamination from cesspools and failed septic systems is polluting the Sakonnet River and Blue Bill Cove. Residents, town officials and state officials continue to argue about who will shoulder the cost.

In the meantime, everyone is paying.

Rhode Islanders generate more than 150 million gallons of wastewater daily, according to the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency. In many areas, wastewater is collected at 19 municipally owned treatment facilities and purified before it finds its way back into the Ocean State’s waterways.

However, some 50,000 Rhode Island homes use cesspools — many predating 1968 — and the state law originally passed in 2007 to phase-out these inadequate systems by Jan. 1., 2013 was pushed back during the General Assembly’s recently concluded session until 2014.

This delayed phase-out only applies to any cesspool within 200 feet of a public drinking water well, within 200 feet of the inland edge of a shoreline feature bordering a tidal water area or within 200 feet of a surface drinking water supply.

Eugenia Marks, the senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and a trusted local environmental voice, understands the phase-out delay. “It’s a tremendous expense and a real hardship to get them out of the ground,” she said.

Marks, though, is concerned with one number (200 feet) and a popular summertime destination (beaches). She said the phase-out law should be amended to include cesspools within a greater distance to water supplies, including beaches, to better protect inland swimming holes and public wells that supply drinking water to schools, nursing homes and restaurants.

“I’ve done the research, and some viruses from human waste can travel 600 feet,” she said. “The legislation is too limited. It doesn’t say anything about public swimming waters. They are not adequately protected.”

As an example, she noted how Beach Pond in Exeter, Echo Lake in Pascoag and Oak Swamp Reservoir in Johnston, an inland body of water with a public beach (Camp Massasoit), are ringed by homes originally built as summer cottages that are now used year-round and not tied in to public sewer systems.

About 150,000 Rhode Island households, or one third of the state’s population, use some form of septic system/cesspool for sewage disposal. Rhode Island’s septic systems alone discharge some 7 billion gallons of wastewater into the ground annually, according to the DEM.

Few of these systems receive routine inspection and maintenance, and those that do may receive inadequate care as inspectors have historically been without standardized procedures. Rhode Island doesn’t even possess a comprehensive inventory of cesspools and their locations.

A look at Johnston Wastewater Management Board field inspection reports and notices filed in the past decade concerning septic system and cesspool problems just in the Oak Swamp Reservoir neighborhood provide a glimpse into the state’s clean water troubles.

Handwritten notes on these reports tell a disconcerting story — one that is likely repeated in neighborhoods in non-sewered municipalities across the state. “Sewage seeping out from under the grass and into the street.” “Failed system visible from the street.” “Effluent flowing down the street.” “Problem has been going on for years.” “Visible effluent.” “Overflows have been occurring for some time.” “Septic odors present in liquids.”

Camp Massasoit, on the shore of Oak Swamp Reservoir, was closed in June for six days because of high levels of fecal bacteria.

Expensive either way
Homeowners will spend money on interior improvements, a new deck or even a paved driveway, but many balk at replacing a cesspool or failing septic system.

The average cost of replacing a cesspool is $15,000, but financial concerns can be addressed by low-cost loans, such as the program Johnston offers that assists homeowners in replacing failing sewage disposal systems. The Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency also offers low-interest loans.

Municipalities, such as Newport, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act are barely penalized. The General Assembly for years ignored bills calling for a cesspool phase-out, and when it finally did pass the Cesspool Phase-out Act of 2007, current members used phrases such as “financial burden” and “cost prohibitive” to delay action for another year.

While we wait, the financial, public health and environmental cost of removing ineffective cesspools and fixing failing septic systems continues to climb.

“The public drives change,” said Annemarie Beardsworth, the public information officer for the DOH. “When the public is really concerned, things change.”