By LAUREN CARSON
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) recently finalized an agreement with the federal government, after failing to comply with the Clean Water Act, neglecting its drainage systems and allowing runoff from highways to pour into more than 200 bodies of water in our state for years on end.
According to a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, RIDOT failed to evaluate the impact of its systems on water bodies or detect illicit connections and discharges of pollutants, including sewage; didn’t inspect, clean or repair its drainage systems or catch basins; and neglected to adequately sweep streets to reduce contaminants. The result was the discharge of pollution into 235 waterways that flow into Narragansett and Mount Hope bays.
Now, under a consent agreement approved in recent days by U.S. District Court, the state will have to immediately inventory its drainage systems and submit comprehensive plans for cleaning, repairs and maintenance; identify and eliminate illicit connections and pollution sources, and pay a civil penalty of $315,000. It will also need to report rigorously about compliance to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Plainly, there was a significant failure of management, lack of planning, and inadequate funding that went unchecked for a decade and a half leading Rhode Island to this point, and that is extremely disappointing to me as a Rhode Islander who appreciates the environment, a taxpayer and as a (relatively new) lawmaker.
In addition, as Rhode Island invests millions of dollars into reinventing its message and rebranding itself for tourists and businesses, we have a black eye for not complying with federal law and are exposed to criticism for noncompliance and mismanagement.
It is encouraging that all the parties involved — EPA, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and RIDOT — seem committed to correcting the problem. Yet, as I stated in a letter I submitted during the public comment period on this agreement, there is little sense in the fine, which is insignificant in relation to the length and breadth of the violation and wouldn’t be used to fund any of the mitigation.
This fine will ultimately be paid by the taxpayers of Rhode Island, who have already suffered the damage to their environment and the mismanagement of their state’s limited resources that this fine is supposed to punish. Forcing Rhode Island taxpayers to pay the civil penalty to the federal government assigns the punishment to the victims while doing nothing to mitigate any of the harm caused by stormwater pollution in Rhode Island. If there is going to be a monetary penalty, shouldn’t it be a requirement that the department commit specific resources to fixing the problems, like buying street sweepers or hiring staff to clean storm drains?
Rhode Island’s current administration, which inherited this problem, has been cooperative and interested in addressing the violations. But there is no guarantee that future administrations will be as willing, particularly when faced with the challenge of mitigating these issues alongside the problem of highways and bridges that have suffered similar neglect over the same period, with limited resources.
For that reason, I plan to file legislation this session requiring the Department of Transportation to submit regular reports to the General Assembly on its efforts to comply with this agreement. At least the additional level of transparency and oversight can help protect our state’s natural resources from similar neglect in the future.
Clean water is an obvious necessity anywhere, but Rhode Island in particular ought to be vigilant about its obligations to protect our waterways. Not only are we the Ocean State, where several substantial portions of our economy are dependent on a healthy freshwater and marine environment, but our own late Sen. John H. Chafee was the sponsor of major components of the Clean Water Act.
RIDOT must make good on its responsibility under the law, mitigating past problems and taking the necessary steps to protect the environment now and in the future. I am hopeful that RIDOT will use this moment as an opportunity to better guarantee the protection of Rhode Island’s water, one of its most important resources.
Lauren Carson is a Democrat who represents District 75 in Newport, R.I.