Beach Closures Prompt Action Against Cesspools

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WARWICK, R.I. — It’s not always easy to see, but water pollution remains a big problem in Narragansett Bay, according to officials. Unsafe bacteria levels have caused 107 beach closings this year, up from 54 last year and 73 in 2011.

“When it rains in Rhode Island we swim in pollution,” said Save The Bay’s Baykeeper Tom Kutcher during a July 31 press event at Oakland Beach.

Oakland Beach has been closed 27 days this year, the most in Rhode Island. The main culprit, state officials and environment experts say, is stormwater runoff. A rainy spring and summer has flushed high quantities of lawn fertilizer, animal waste, Dumpster leakage, car oil and overflowing cesspools and septic systems into the bay, according to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Department of Health and environmental groups. The sewage and other pollution create harmful bacteria that threatens the health of swimmers, fish and other marine life.

The press event was held nearly 10 years after a massive fish kill wiped out a million fish in Greenwich Bay. That trajedy also occurred during a summer of heavy rain and a high number of beach closures.

Save The Bay executive director Jonathan Stone blamed cesspools and septic systems as the main contributors to the beach-water pollution. Cesspools, which are often nothing more than perforated steel buckets buried in shallow pits, allow sewage to flow under and above ground into storm drains and waterways that lead to the bay. Although new cesspools are prohibited in Rhode Island, some 25,000 are still in use. Sewage connections and low-interests loans are available to help property owners replace cesspools, but there are no laws being enforced that require owners to make the switch.

At a cost of $25,000 or more, new septic system are too costly for many to make the switch, said Rep. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick. While there is unanimous support for the legislation and fixing the problem, he said cost is the biggest impediment to getting rid of cesspools. “It’s just a matter of dollars,” Shekarchi said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-Narragansett, said those paying for sewage service are footing the bill for keeping the bay clean. She also noted that tourism and businesses lose money when beaches close. “I understand it’s a difficult (economic) time but it’s time for them to step up and pay their fair share," she said.

Oakland Beach overlooks often-polluted Greenwich Bay. The 5-square-mile cove is shallow and its water doesn’t circulate adequately with Narragansett Bay to flush out pollutants. It’s also surrounded by one of the most densely built communities in the state. Asphalt is ubiquitous, and several local neighborhoods have balked at mandates to eliminate cesspools.

A handful of City Council members and members of the General Assembly attended the July 31 press event and promised to address the problem. They all expressed support for legislation requiring septic upgrades when a property is sold, but the bill has failed in recent years to go to a vote.

Save The Bay promised to continue advocating for the legislation while also working with cities and towns to reduce sewage and stormwater runoff. Stone sited some success stories: The massive combined sewage overflow tunnel and underground storage tanks run by the Narragansett Bay Commission for the Providence area have dramatically improved the health of the upper bay; a 2-year-old stormwater drainage system at Bristol Town Beach has practically eliminated closures at what used to one of the most polluted beaches in the state.

Save The Bay outreach is part of a larger state effort to raise awareness about the costs of stormwater runoff. Providence and many surrounding cities and towns, as well as Middletown, are looking at forming stormwater utility districts — a fee and incentive program for reducing impervious surfaces such as parking lots and driveways.

The problem of beach closures isn't limited to Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island lakes and ponds, such as Yawgoog Pond in Hopkinton, also have had to close this summer because of high bacteria counts. Many of the same solutions apply to any polluted body of water, Stone said.

“We know what needs to be done,” Stone said. “The beach closures we’re seeing this year are attributed to local pollution.“

Before visiting a Rhode Island beach, check the state Department of Health’s website for current information.