Feb 21, 2007

Rhode Island Ordered to Stop Harmful Sewage Overflows

The United States Environmental Protections Agency’s (EPA) New England Regional Office ordered five Rhode Island municipalities and a wastewater utility to take steps to stop harmful raw sewage overflows from seeping out of city pipes and wastewater systems and into the State’s waterways. EPA’s issuance of Administrative Compliance Orders is part of a new effort to combat the serious water quality problems caused by Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) in the state. The EPA Orders were issued to: the Narragansett Bay Commission and the Cities of Providence, Barrington, Smithfield, Cranston and Bristol, Rhode Island.

“EPA is working to secure Rhode Island’s future as the ‘Ocean State’ by tackling the State’s sewage overflow problems head-on,” stated Robert W. Varney, regional Administrator of EPA’s New England office. “This effort to address SSOs in Rhode Island will help ensure the long-term vitality and health of the State’s most valuable resources -- its coastal beaches, shellfish areas and waters.”

EPA plans to use a variety of compliance techniques to make all of Rhode Island’s wastewater utilities and municipalities with wastewater collection systems aware of the harmful effects of SSOs, and get them to take action to fix any problems. Recently, EPA sent letters to all such entities in Rhode Island, asking city officials to focus on this important issue and informing them that it is an EPA priority. Working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM), EPA plans to combine enforcement and compliance assistance to encourage, or require, municipalities and wastewater entities to take necessary steps to address their SSO problems.

EPA has taken enforcement actions in other New England states for sanitary sewer overflows, and in some cases collecting penalties. EPA recently collected penalties from the Metropolitan District (MDC) in Hartford, Conn., and Worcester, Mass., for failures in the communities' sanitary sewer collection systems. The six orders announced today are the first federal actions in Rhode Island for sewer overflows.

SSOs are caused by breakdowns in the system of pipes, pumps and other equipment that municipalities and wastewater utilities use to collect and transport sewage to wastewater treatment plants. These unlawful discharges often occur due to blockages; structural, mechanical or electrical failures; or from excess flows that enter wastewater collection systems. Many of the problems can be linked to inadequate maintenance. Implementation of effective preventative maintenance programs has been shown to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of these discharges.

When a SSO occurs, raw sewage is released from the wastewater collection system onto streets, or into basements, or surface waters. Discharges of untreated sewage from SSOs are a significant cause of water quality violations in New England. Significant property damage and public health risks may also result from sewage backups into homes and other structures.

The recent Compliance Orders targeted wastewater systems with serious SSO problems, and require system assessments, development of plans to remedy any deficiencies found, and development of long-term preventative maintenance programs. EPA’s Orders compliment ongoing actions that RIDEM has taken to control SSOs in East Providence and Middletown.

EPA plans to continue its enforcement push while also offering compliance assistance workshops and training for Rhode Island municipalities. The first workshop was held on December 12, 2006, in Warwick, and additional assistance workshops will be provided through 2007. The workshops will assist municipalities by helping them identify and prevent problems with the operation and maintenance of their wastewater collection infrastructure, and will provide guidance on how to develop long-term management and investment plans for future protection.