Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Becoming Fluent in Effluent - The BayKeeper's Introduction to Providence Wastewater History

By Mike Jarbeau, Save The Bay BayKeeper

Recently, Save The Bay’s board of directors was invited to tour the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment facility in Providence. As the new Narragansett Baykeeper, I was able to tag along and dive headfirst (figuratively) into the operations of one of the nation’s oldest treatment facilities. I knew it would be interesting to look at the history of wastewater treatment in the area, including Save The Bay’s work to address wastewater pollution.

As Providence and surrounding areas developed in the 1800s, residents adhered to the old adage that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Household and industrial waste was deposited into the nearest river where it was thought to float away harmlessly. However, as populations increased, it became apparent that local tributaries couldn’t handle the waste, and health issues rose dramatically. A sewage treatment facility was brought online at Field’s Point in 1901. Despite a series of improvements as wastewater treatment technologies developed, the facility struggled to keep up with demand. By the 1970s infrastructure was failing, and nearly 65 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage were flowing into Narragansett Bay every day. Shellfish beds were closed due to contamination, and reports of sludge floating in the Bay were common.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into waterways. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Rhode Island and Save The Bay, sued the city of Providence over ongoing discharges of raw sewage from the inadequate Field’s Point plant. In the 1980s, Save The Bay brought attention to wastewater treatment plants through a report called “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Save The Bay also published a report in 1988 highlighting the threats from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that direct flow directly into the Bay when storms overwhelm the capacity of the treatment facility.

The Narragansett Bay Commission (which took over management of Field’s Point in 1982) initiated a major project to address CSO discharge problem. After a comprehensive process with significant input from Save The Bay and other stakeholders, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management approved the first phase of the CSO Abatement Plan. The plan featured a three-mile long storage tunnel that was drilled under the city of Providence. The tunnel was completed in 2008 and can hold about 65 million gallons of stormwater and wastewater when rain overwhelms the Field’s Point plant. This wastewater is then redirected for treatment as demand returns to normal at the facility.

Today, the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility is capable of treating up to 200 million gallons of wastewater a day. The treatment process takes about 12 hours from when it enters the facility until it is discharged. Save The Bay works closely with the Narragansett Bay Commission to monitor Bay conditions and continues to engage on current and future projects to place the health of Narragansett Bay at the forefront of all decisions. As Baykeeper, I’m proud of the work Save The Bay has done and will continue to work with our leadership and policy team as we fight for our Bay.

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