Innovation Ecosystem

Dirty laundry

Sewage continues to flow into the Blackstone River from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, while the McKee administration moves to sell off the state-owned property at 181 Cumberland St.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The state has put its property at 181 Cumberland St. on the sales block, with bidding to be held this week.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/13/23
Sewage is still being discharged into the Blackstone River in Woonsocket as a result of a malfunctioning wastewater treatment plant, while the state moves rapidly ahead with selling off a former site of a community agency, symptoms of a disrupted ecosystem.
Would you ever be brave enough to eat a fish caught in the Blackstone River? Will the city of Woonsocket bid on purchasing the property at 181 Cumberland St.? What are the legal and financial liabilities for the city of Woonsocket because of the apparent malfunction of its wastewater treatment plant? Will the ongoing sewage discharges into the Blackstone River emerge as a campaign issue in the upcoming Congressional election to replace Congressman David Cicilline? Why did GoLocalProv attack R.I. AG Peter Neronha?
The apparent demise of the proposed Fane Tower, which promised to be the tallest building in Providence, as the site of luxury apartments and condominiums, can be seen as a victory for Jane Jacob’s ghost, once again defeating Robert Moses’ ghost. At a time when the state is reeling from a housing crisis, mostly of its own making, the question emerges: Could the site of the now defunct Fane Tower be re-envisioned as a place to bring to life the state’s first public housing project, focused on modular housing construction that seeks to create a mix of community residents – from college students to retired workers, from young families to multi-generational families, with the amenities of daycare and elder care built into the project.
Forty years ago, the TV show MASH aired its final episode, a TV show spun off from the Robert Altman 1970 movie of the same name, whose setting was Korea but the true landscape at play was Vietnam. The cultural warfare at play in the 1960s and 1970s is so very similar to the current cultural warfare we are enduring today.
For this week’s dinner table conversation, I would invite some of the on-air personalities of talk radio – such as Matt Allen or Gene Valicenti – and pair them with Jocelyn Foye and Haley Buckey, where the radio personalities do not control the microphone or the questions, to talk about the problems of toxic masculinity, moderated by Angela Ankoma.

WOONSOCKET – It has been a terrible, no-good, miserable two weeks for the city that straddles the Blackstone River in northern Rhode Island.

Partially treated sewage continues to flow into the Blackstone River from the city’s wastewater treatment facility, forcing the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to extend its “no contact” advisory, 10 days after the sewage discharge into the river was first discovered by community activist John Berard, on Wednesday, March 1, and reported to DEM.

The glossy black waters of the Blackstone River were riven with a streak of copper-colored discharge from the gurgling pipe on the east bank. Raw sewage,” Berard wrote, describing his discovery on Wednesday morning, March 1. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “There is no mistaking the stench of raw sewage.”]

[Editor’s Note: Neither city officials nor the operators of the wastewater treatment facility notified DEM or the public on their own.]

The discharge of “partly treated” sewage into the river from the Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility is still occurring, according to a news release issued by DEM, following an inspection on Friday, March 10. The agency said that the plant’s operators were still trying “to correct an ongoing process failure.” To quote WPRO's intrepid reporter, Steve Klamkin, "Really?"

The diagnosis, according to DEM, was that “the City of Woonsocket and its contract operator have been unable to consistently reduce solids levels in the secondary clarifiers to acceptable levels.”

Translated, “dirty water” is still being discharged into the Blackstone River by the treatment facility, which treats approximately 10 million gallons of sewage daily, according to DEM.

What are the short-term and long-term health risks? Are the two largest local health care delivery systems in Woonsocket – Landmark Medical Center and Thundermist Health Center – keeping track of potential incidents of illness that could be related to the sewage discharge into the Blackstone River? Good questions.

As a “precaution,” DEM has advised the public to refrain from any primary recreational water activities [wading and swimming] as well as secondary contact activities – such as canoeing, kayaking, rowing, and fishing. Further, the agency warned Rhode Islanders to avoid consuming any fish from the Blackstone River, from the location of the ongoing discharge on Cumberland Hill Road in Woonsocket to the Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket.

Outsourcing, and an apparent lack of accountability
The city of Woonsocket owns the treatment facility but contracts its operations and maintenance to Jacobs, a Texas-based consulting and engineering firm, and related sludge treatment systems to Synagro Technologies Inc., which is headquartered in Baltimore, according to DEM.

The facility treats between six and nine million gallons of sewage from Woonsocket and nearby areas daily, according to DEM. Wastewater from city residences and commercial and industrial establishments is continually collected and conveyed underground to the plant, which removes pollutants, allegedly in accordance with its state discharge permit before the water can be discharged to the Blackstone River, according to DEM.

This is not the first incidence of “un-permitted discharges” of sewage into the Blackstone River. A similar series of discharges occurred between March and June of 2022, according to DEM, and are still under investigation, according to the agency.

What continues to be murky is what role Gov. Dan McKee and his administration are playing to hold the city-owned wastewater facility legally and financially accountable for any alleged violations of environmental laws and regulations as a result of the continuing discharge of sewage into the Blackstone River.

Further legal action by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha and his office against the city’s wastewater treatment facility may be imminent, according to a statement from the Attorney General

In an email to ConvergenceRI, in response to a question about what legal action may be warranted, Attorney General Neronha said that he was awaiting technical information from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management [DEM].

“This office is, effectively, a law firm, and like all law firms, relies on outside agencies to provide the technical expertise we need to evaluate whether environmental enforcement action by this Office is possible and warranted under state law,” Neronha said.

The Attorney General continued, “This office relies on DEM water quality and other experts in evaluating situations such as the one ongoing in Woonsocket and the Blackstone River.”

The Attorney General then described the information that is being sought: “Specifically, the Woonsocket wastewater treatment plant has a Clean Water Act permit to discharge effluent into the Blackstone River. That permit sets certain standards that that effluent must meet for discharge, and when the effluent after testing and evaluation does not meet those standards, then DEM administrative action and legal action by this Office is possible and warranted.”

“Because this office does not have water quality experts on staff, we rely on DEM technical staff for these evaluations,” Attorney General Neronha continued. “Over the past year or so, DEM has taken certain administrative actions involving the plant as the environmental regulator for the state. We have been working with DEM to obtain the technical information we need to determine whether additional legal action by this office is possible and warranted. That has been an ongoing process. We expect to make our determination regarding action by this Office very soon.”

A city on the verge?
In recent months, the city of Woonsocket has been in the news for the way it dismantled a homeless encampment in early January, which resulted in a number of angry, hostile exchanges at Woonsocket City Council meetings – with city officials attempting to pin the blame on community agencies for the growing number of homeless residents in the city.

At the same time, city officials had attempted to block a mobile outreach van owned by CODAC from operating from a parking lot in the city, but those legal issues have apparently now been resolved.

A recent investigation by Nina Sparling, a reporter with The Public’s Radio, which aired on Wednesday, March 8, detailed how homeowners in Woonsocket have been blocked from accessing the protections under Rhode Island law that protect homeowners from losing their homes after falling behind on property taxes or utility bills.

As Sparling reported: “Since 2016, dozens of Woonsocket homeowners have faced foreclosure after getting behind on their taxes and utility bills, despite a state law designed to protect them, an investigation by The Public’s Radio found. The year before, the city of Woonsocket had charged Rhode Island Housing, the state housing finance agency, tens of thousands in unexpected tax bills. That led the quasi-state agency to quietly stop allowing Woonsocket homeowners access to protections that prevent private investors from profiting off homeowners who get behind.”

Full speed ahead
Meanwhile, the McKee administration is moving full speed ahead on the sale of the state-owned facility at 181 Cumberland St. in Woonsocket, which formerly housed the Community Care Alliance of RI.

The agency was served with an eviction notice earlier this year from the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities and Hospitals. [See links below to ConvergenceRI story, “When the state evicts community agencies,” and “Is the state guilty of neglect with its community assets in Woonsocket?” and “BHDDH on schedule with its evictions of MAP, CCA.”] The eviction was the result of the failure by the state to maintain the premises, failing to repair a leak in the roof.

The R.I. Department of Administration, at the direction of the McKee administration, is putting the building up for sale, marketing it as a “commercial real estate opportunity,” with the sale being coordinated by the SI Coria Company. Bidding opens this week on Tuesday, March 14, at 10 a.m., and closes the next day, on Wednesday, March 15, at 12 noon.

The minimum bid for the building must be $425,000, according to sources, and bidders must put $20,000 down in order to bid.

On March 15, the day that the bidding for the sale of 181 Cumberland St. is slated to close, a new digital news platform, Rhode Island Current, will launch.

“We are excited to expand Rhode Island’s news ecosystem and provide a steady stream of accurate and thorough reporting on what’s happening at the State House in Providence and all along our 400 miles of coastline,” editor Janine Weisman said. “Rhode Islanders are hungry for nonpartisan coverage of public policy issues and we intend to keep them well-nourished.”

It will be curious to see how Rhode Island Current dives into the coverage of the raw sewage pollution story of the Blackstone River in Woonsocket.

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