Warwick Enters into Consent Agreement with DEM

But residents still concerned city will be unable to protect its beaches and water resources

By SAM LIN-SOMMER/ecoRI News contributor

WARWICK, R.I. — The city might be home to some of Rhode Island’s most coveted coastline, ponds and lakes, but that doesn’t mean residents get to enjoy them. Local officials and residents gathered recently at City Hall to discuss options for dealing with the pollution problems impacting the community’s water resources.

At the June 6 City Council meeting, resolutions addressed problems with contaminated water that government officials and residents agreed have been festering for a long time. Two proposals stole the stage in the cavernous Council Chamber. The first was a consent agreement between the city and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) that laid out a long-term plan to fix the city’s municipal separate storm sewage system (MS4) — a management program intended to improve water quality by reducing the amount of pollutants that can enter storm/sewer systems during storm events.

The second was a public presentation by five local experts from a variety of fields on methods for improving the water quality in Warwick’s major bodies of water.

During the group presentation, the five speakers addressed government officials and local residents who packed the Council Chamber. They explained impacts on the city’s waters, described their own work on restoring the community’s water resources, and suggested ways in which residents could protect both the water and themselves.

Elizabeth Scott, DEM’s deputy chief of surface water protection, noted that 33 bodies of water in the city don’t meet DEM’s water-quality standards, and that Narragansett Bay, Buckeye Brook, Warwick Pond, Gordon Pond and Sand Pond are all degraded.

Linda Green, a University of Rhode Island professor who directs URI Watershed Watch, a volunteer water-monitoring program with more than 45 organizations, detailed the pollution sources that are plaguing municipalities across the state. The process starts as water from rainstorms sweeps excess nutrients and metals from residential and industrial sites into local waterways. The phosphorus and nitrogen swept across impervious surfaces by stormwater feeds naturally occurring cyanobacteria, allowing their populations to multiply quickly into colorful algal blooms that produce chemicals that are toxic in large amounts.

The Rhode Island Department of Health’s Barbara Morin implored residents to avoid contact with waters that are pea green or blue green, telltale signs of algal blooms, and to take photos of such waters and send them to DEM. Contact with those waters, she warned, could cause damage to one’s skin, liver, kidneys and nervous system.

The MS4 is intended to dispose of stormwater, but the city has failed to properly implement the management program, forcing it to adopt the compliance agreement with DEM.

At the beginning of the June 6 meeting, Mayor Scott Avedisian and DEM director Janet Coit sat side by side as they explained the agreement. DEM issued the city of Warwick a notice of violation (NOV) for failing to comply with the requirements of the permit that it was given for the MS4 in 2003. The NOV charged the city with a long list of failures, including failure to implement public education programs, failure to implement an illicit discharge program, and failure to properly inspect sewage infrastructure.

The mayor explained that, faced with the NOV, the city has a choice: it can either negotiate a consent agreement with DEM, or enter an expensive, protracted legal battle.

Coit hinted, “If you don’t go down this road, things will be ... not as much in your favor.” The council voted unanimously to adopt the consent agreement.

The agreement is the product of negotiations that started in November. Presented by Coit and Adevesian as a “package deal” not up for amendment, the agreement delineated actions that the city will take to improve the functioning of its MS4 and bring itself back into good standing with DEM. The plan is laid out as a schedule with various deadlines, and its requirements range from tightening inspection of construction projects to regularly sweeping streets to mapping sewage infrastructure. The city’s final deadline for reaching compliance is 2022.

The recent meeting included several other resolutions that were tied to the consent plan and the broader subject of environmental protection. The council voted on the state’s Green Economy Bond, which would help fund the various projects that Warwick is planning.

Also, resolutions called for stricter soil erosion and sediment control ordinances, stricter illicit discharge ordinances, and the creation of a Warwick land trust that would manage and protect municipal natural spaces. Some of the resolutions were withheld from this meeting to be edited and proposed at a later one.

Some residents were concerned that the public hadn’t been consulted enough in the making of the consent plan, and they called for the public’s inclusion in the plan’s execution. One resident commented that the plan was “cookie cutter” and didn’t seem tailored to local circumstances.

Local stakeholders such as Buckeye Brook Coalition have Warwick-specific knowledge that should be taken into consideration during the plan’s execution, she said. Roy Dempsey said the city was underemphasizing the parts of the plan that most directly benefited residents’ lives, such as street sweeping. His street, he said, hadn’t been swept in two years.

Some of the meeting’s attendees said the consent plan was an excuse for Warwick to continue its negligence without facing any consequences.

Edgar Ladouceur, council member for Ward 5, feared that the city, having done “almost nothing” from 2003-10 regarding the MS4, is “continuing to kick the can down the road.”

After the meeting, Philip D’Ercole, who lives within the Buckeye Brook watershed, worried that the city would conduct water tests and do nothing with the data, as he claimed it has in the past. With that mind, he hoped to enlist outside researchers to independently analyze the data from the city’s tests.

D’Ercole said he doubted whether the plan would come to fruition, since Avedisian and the DEM were the same parties who ushered in the failed original MS4 project in 2003.

Another resident said she was frustrated that since 2003 large sums of taxpayer money had been spent to clean up the city’s water sources, to no avail.

“We’re the second-largest city in Rhode Island with the most coastline,” she said, “and we can’t even keep our beaches clean.”