29 Property Owners Cited for Cesspool Violations

By ecoRI News staff

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has issued expedited citation notices to 29 property owners who are in violation of the Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007. The law applies to cesspools within 200 feet of the coastline, a public well or a reservoir.

As of Jan. 1, the use of all cesspools within these 200-foot zones is prohibited. Cesspools in violation must be abandoned and the building upgraded with a new onsite wastewater treatment system (OWTS) or connected to municipal sewer.

Of the 29 notices issued, 14 were for cesspools within 200 feet of a drinking water well or reservoir. DEM has identified 477 cesspools and 299 suspected cesspools that are subject to the act. Of these, 300 have started the permitting process to replace the cesspool with an OWTS; 101 are in areas that will have sewers available in the near future; and 51 have received extensions for financial hardship.

DEM’s enforcement effort is targeted to those property owners that aren’t within any of those categories. DEM expects to issue about 20 notices a month, each carrying a $200 penalty. The issuance of the notices follows efforts by DEM since the Cesspool Act was enacted to get property owners into compliance without assessing penalties. Those efforts included sending three letters to each property owner.

“Over the past three years, DEM has made numerous efforts to make property owners aware of the Cesspool Act and the deadline for compliance,” DEM Director Janet Coit said. “While the department has a responsibility to enforce the Cesspool Act, we also recognize the financial burden this has on property owners. Issuing these notices is a way that we hope will get property owners into compliance without imposing onerous penalties.”

This first group of notices marks the first of those issued under a law enacted by the General Assembly last year that allows DEM to issue expedited citations for environmental violations. The expedited citation process encourages quick resolution of violations and allows for payment of a reduced penalty.

Violations that the DEM is using for expedited citations are straightforward, easily correctable, and those where the person cited knew or should have known of the violation. In cases where the DEM cites a person for non-compliance through issuance of an expedited citation, penalties of up to $2,500 may be assessed. By statute expedited citations are effective for 60 days. If the matter is unresolved and the expedited citation expires, DEM retains the right to pursue formal enforcement action that would include issuance of a separate notice of violation order and penalty.

A cesspool is any buried chamber that receives sewage from a building for disposal into the ground. All cesspools in Rhode Island pre-date 1968 and are considered sub-standard systems. Because of their age, most cesspools have reached the end of their useful life and some periodically, including seasonally and with spring rains, overflow and cause sewage to be discharged into nearby surface waters.

Also, they don’t treat wastewater, but merely dispose of it. Cesspools concentrate wastewater in one location, often deep within the ground and in direct contact with groundwater, causing groundwater contamination. This groundwater may flow into nearby drinking water wells and surface waters, contributing to adverse public health and environmental impacts.