By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
WARWICK, R.I. — The politics of sewage and who should pay for a better system to manage waste has cast a stink across the city for decades. Despite a recent vote by the City Council to enable some changes to the Warwick Sewer Authority, this stench still lingers.
Decades ago federal grant money helped sewer parts of this former farming community, but that money dried up long ago, leaving some residents interested in connecting but unable to do so, while others who can have refused.
The city’s sewer system currently has 21,000 customers — about 60,000 of Warwick’s 85,000 residents are connected. Another 2,700 property owners have access to the system, but haven’t connected. In all, about 65 percent of the city is tied in, well below the average for the rest of the state.
“Other communities have a 90 percent connection rate,” said Janine Burke, who has served as the executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority (WSA) for the past six years. “Only 70 percent of the people who have a sewer line running by their home have connected.”
Last July, soon after Save The Bay’s executive director, Jonathan Stone, and Mayor Scott Avidesian held a press conference at Oakland Beach stressing the importance of eliminating the city’s cesspools, City Council member Ed Ladouceur created the Sewer Review Commission. The 13-member board, which included council members and state officials, spent eight months crafting a resolution that initially would have given the WSA the authority to require property owners with cesspools to tie into the sewer system when a connection was available.
The since-amended measure, among other things, would create new language that would allow the WSA to change the way it charges residents and businesses for the cost of sewer construction projects. Currently, because of the wording in the original legislation, the WSA must rely on property frontage alone when deciding how much property owners are charged for sewer assessments. This longstanding method has raised criticisms and concerns.
Outdated cesspools and failing septic systems, however, continue to be among the main contributors to Rhode Island’s beach-water pollution problems, according to state officials and environmental groups such as Save The Bay. Cesspools, which are nothing more than perforated steel buckets buried in shallow pits or covered pits lined with unmortared brick or stone, allow sewage to flow under and above ground into storm drains and waterways that lead to Narragansett Bay.
Unsafe bacteria levels continue to cause beach closings across the state. Last year there were 119 closings, up from 54 in 2012 and 73 in 2011. Since 2000, 44 closure events have forced Oakland Beach to be closed to swimming for 193 days — the second-highest number of days lost to swimming and the third-highest number of closure events recorded in Rhode Island in that time.
Although new cesspools have been prohibited in Rhode Island since 1968, about 25,000 are still in use. Warwick started aggressively expanding its sewer network in the 1990s, but many property owners who have cesspools or septic systems are opposed to connecting to the city’s sewer system, citing cost concerns and/or past failures of the WSA.
But Warwick’s continued use of antiquated cesspools is a serious concern, according to Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy. He blames the politics and problems that once engulfed the WSA as the reason the problem hasn’t been adequately addressed.
“The politics of the sewer district were brutal,” said Hamblett, who became Save The Bay’s representative on the Sewer Review Commission after Jane Austin left the organization. “It wasn’t run well for years. It was fraught with politics and political decisions. There was a breakdown in trust.”
Ladouceur and fellow council member Joseph Gallucci’s resolution is intended to address the WSA’s accountability problem. In hopes that it actually does, Ladouceur, prior to the public discussion period at the May 12 council meeting, deleted the mandatory connection provision from the resolution.
Despite his belief that extending sewers to neighborhoods that were promised them — some as far back as two decades — was the right thing to do for many reasons and that for the effort to be financially sustainable people must tie into the system once it was possible, Ladouceur believes the resolution has a better chance of gaining necessary General Assembly approval without mandatory connections. The state Legislature created the WSA in 1962.
But, as Hamblett said, it also gutted the resolution. This preemptive castration of the resolution also didn’t appease all of the measure’s critics. While the council voted 5-2 (two members were absent) to approve the resolution, one of the dissenting members, Steve Merolla, called the WSA “an albatross around everyone’s neck.”
He claimed the authority is known to say one thing and then do another. He charged that it isn’t managed properly, and claimed septic systems are less expensive and serve to recharge groundwater.
The other council member to vote against the measure, Joseph Solomon, focused on assessments. He wanted to know what expenses homeowners with cesspools or septic systems would face if they tied into the sewer system.
Most of the public opposition came from homeowners who focused on costs. A few opponents said if a cesspool is properly maintained it will last forever, failing to realize a cesspool does nothing to treat wastewater no matter how well maintained it maybe.
Those who spoke against having to connect to the city’s sewer system — whether mandatory or not — said the idea was nothing but a tax. One man called it “extortion”; another said he’s had a cesspool on his property for 53 years and has never had a problem, because he uses RID-X. One vocal opponent said his property is 4 miles from Oakland Beach, so there is no way his cesspool is polluting that beach.
Roger Durand, citing 500 people whom he said signed petitions in opposition to paying for sewers other than their own, said, “We still don’t know who's paying for the new sewers.”
Gene Nadeau argued that no one should be forced to change from either a cesspool or septic system if they don’t have a problem. He said not one drop of sewage from the Governor Francis Farms neighborhood where he lives has been flushed into Narragansett Bay.
Hamblett said that without mandatory connections both the environment and those connected to the sewer system — locally and statewide — will unfairly shoulder the costs.
Ladouceur said the city couldn’t continue to kick this important issue down the road. “People have been promised sewers to years and they are still waiting,” he said. “They have overflowing cesspools ... they can’t take back-to-back showers. It’s been a problem for years and we can’t continue to ignore it.”
The Ward 5 council member noted that the resolution would require the WSA to appear before the council quarterly, which he said would improve oversight. He spoke of fixing interest costs on assessments at 1.25 percent more than the borrowing rate the WSA pays. He said the measure would enable the WSA to develop hardship programs for those who have difficulty paying the assessments charged for connecting to the system.
Assessments are mandatory charges residents are billed when sewer lines are installed in their street. Residents are charged regardless of whether they tie into the system or not, and are typically paid over a 20-year period. Assessments for recent sewer projects average about $8,200 per property, according to Burke.
If the General Assembly approves new enabling language for the WSA, it would have the ability to find other ways of calculating assessments, such as total square footage of a lot or taking the cost of a particular sewer construction project and dividing it evenly by the number of properties that would be served by having a sewer line on their street.
Ten projects, representing some 2,500 property owners, need to be completed before the entire city has access to a sewer connection, according to Burke. She said the cost to property owners is a concern and that the city needs to make the connections as affordable as possible.
Earlier this year, the Sewer Review Commission proposed $56 million in sewer bonds. Of that total, $23 million would be used to heighten the levee that protects the city’s wastewater treatment facility from Pawtuxet River flooding and for plant upgrades to meet requirements to reduce the discharge of phosphorous and nitrogen. The remaining $33 million would be used to extend sewers to six of the 10 neighborhoods still waiting to be connected.
Beginning Jan. 1, under state law, all cesspools within 200 feet of the Rhode Island shoreline, a public well or a public drinking-water supply have to be replaced by an onsite wastewater treatment system — likely a septic system — or connected to public sewer.
About 40 percent of Rhode Islanders get their drinking water from groundwater sources or from small local reservoirs, and obsolete cesspools are a major source of pollution to these water supplies.
As of late February, of the 945 properties in violation, including 172 in Warwick, 504 (147 locally) have replaced their cesspools. The average cost to replace a cesspool with a septic system is typically between $10,000 and $15,000, according to state officials.
The state law includes a hardship provision, which gives those with limited financial resources an additional five years to replace their cesspool.
Three municipalities — New Shoreham (Block Island), Charlestown and South Kingstown — have local requirements in place to replace all cesspools, not just those identified under state law.
Rhode Islanders generate about 150 million gallons of wastewater daily.