Senate Committee Approves R.I. Cesspool Ban

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A ban on Rhode Island’s remaining cesspools cleared a significant hurdle May 20 when the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture passed a bill to the Senate floor.

A cesspool ban came close to passing last year when, during the final days of the legislative session, the bill was pulled from a full Senate vote without an explanation.

This year the bill has the support of the Rhode Island Builders Association. It also gives extra time to comply for properties being sold. In recent years, the Rhode Island Association of Realtors has opposed the legislation over the high costs new septic systems place on homeowners.

The state has about 25,000 cesspools, which are little more than holes in the ground. Septic systems would still be permitted under the proposed ban.

Waste from cesspools typically leaches toward water supplies, wetlands and the coast, where it causes health risks and beach closures. The waste can also travel through surface runoff, causing the same health and environmental risks. This waste contains bacteria, viruses, ammonium and other pollutants such as phosphates, chlorides, grease and cesspool cleaning chemicals.

The legislation would require compliance when a property is sold or changes owners. Cesspools would have to be replaced with approved septic systems or connected to municipal sewer. The ban includes a waiver for low-income property owners, and low-interest loans are available in qualified communities.

“This is solid public policy whose time has come,” said Topher Hamblett of Save The Bay and the leading advocate for the ban at the Statehouse. But, he said, it isn’t law yet. “There is a lot of work to do.”

If passed, the legislation would take effect Jan. 1.

A House companion bill is still with the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources.