Monday, June 8, 2015

Get Rid of R.I.'s Cesspools, Once and For All

By Topher Hamblett, Director of Advocacy

     What happens when you flush your toilet, use your shower or wash your dishes? In most of Rhode Island, sewage and wastewater from homes and businesses travel through pipes to a centralized
wastewater treatment plant. There, pollutants—bacteria, metals and excess nitrogen and phosphorus—are removed from that wastewater before it’s discharged into local rivers or Narragansett Bay. For many other Rhode Islanders, septic systems perform the same function, removing many pollutants and filtering the wastewater before sending it into the ground.
25,000 cesspools like this one continue to pollute
Rhode Island’s groundwater, drinking water and
Narragansett Bay.
     But, on an estimated 25,000 properties, sewage and wastewater is flushed into cesspools, which are nothing more than holes in the ground lined with rocks or bricks. They do not remove pollutants, nor do they treat wastewater in any way. In fact, cesspools offer a direct conduit for sewage to reach groundwater, drinking
water and Narragansett Bay and have been linked to the closures of iconic Rhode Island
swimming spots.
     Cesspools are so hazardous that they haven’t been allowed in new construction since the 1960s due to public health concerns. Current law also requires removal of any cesspools located within 200 feet of coastal or surface waters and drinking water supplies. However, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) estimates about 25,000 cesspools remain in Rhode Island.
     That’s where Save The Bay comes in. We’ve been advocating for the removal of the remaining cesspools once and for all. In February, Representative Teresa Tanzi (Narragansett) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (South Kingstown, Charlestown, Block Island) introduced legislation in the RI General Assembly that requires cesspools to be removed within one year of a property sale.
     Their Cesspool “Point of Sale” bills are supported by Save The Bay, The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action RI and the Rhode Island Builders Association. As of this writing, the one organization working actively in opposition of the bill is the RI Association of Realtors, which claims that the cost of removing cesspools places an undue burden on a home seller or homebuyer. 
     Fortunately, the bill provides a hardship waiver for people who can demonstrate need, and low-interest loans for cesspool replacement are available through the RI Clean Water Finance Agency and RI Housing Authority. Residents in municipalities that have RIDEM approved Wastewater Management Plans—which is most communities in the state—qualify for these loans. RIDEM is working with the remaining towns to develop and adopt them.
     Save The Bay applauds Representative Tanzi and Senator Sosnowski for their leadership in the effort to finally rid Rhode Island of cesspools, once and for all. Cesspools are a threat to the water quality and ecological health of aquifers, coastal ponds, rivers and the Bay. And they impact places used for swimming, fishing, shellfishing, kayaking and other recreational activities that Rhode Islanders and our visitors love. Representative Tanzi and Senator Sosnowski are championing sound public policy that is good for Narragansett Bay, the health of all Rhode Islanders, and for the economy.