Town hires firm to seek source of sewage leak

Town hires firm to seek source of sewage leak

The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The town has hired an environmental engineering firm, at the request of the state Department of Environmental Management, to locate the source of untreated sewage that is being discharged into the Pawcatuck River through a storm drain below the Westerly-Pawcatuck bridge.

Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. was hired in December under a $30,700 contract to perform the investigation. DEM asked the town to “develop and implement a plan of action to investigate the storm drain system, find the sources of sewage and eliminate the connections or discharge into the storm drain network,” according to a letter to the town from Eric Beck, a supervising engineer with DEM’s Office of Water Resources.

Gail Mastrati, a DEM spokeswoman, said “illicit discharges in storm drains are common occurrences; municipalities are required to screen and sample sewer outfalls and respond to complaints and notifications from DEM when discharges are detected through monitoring activities.”

Town and state officials have discussed the possibility of illicit discharges into the river for years. DEM’s most recent request to the town followed the collection of samples in July. Town and DEM staff members along with David Prescott, Save the Bay’s South County coast keeper, collected the samples. They started at the discharge point into the river under the bridge, which connects the two downtowns, and moved up through Wilcox Park. “The numbers were extremely high and that’s a big concern,” Prescott said.

In his letter Beck said “DEM considers this area a high priority for further inspections and sampling.”

Of the nine samples collected on July 12, eight tested positive for the presence of human waste. The results of the ninth sample site are not clear in a DEM report. Seven of the sample sites that tested positive were in or around Wilcox Park.

According to its proposal for the investigation, VHB determined that the illicit flow may be coming from Grove Avenue and-or High Street, based on the highest upstream sampling points. The storm drain system in that area follows an underground stream. As with the July sampling, the investigation will involve climbing into manholes and catch basins.

In the event that VHB is initially unable to determine the source, the company has recommended a follow-up investigation using dye testing, which involves introducing a non-toxic dye into toilets, sinks and other plumbing fixtures. VHB would provide town officials with a list of potential properties contributing to the illicit discharges that should be dye-tested. Town officials would then have to secure permission from property owners to use the dye in their homes.

The state has set May 17 as the deadline for the town to submit a report summarizing the findings of the investigation and a written scope and implementation schedule for correcting the illicit discharge.

For years, water samples taken from the Pawcatuck River have revealed the presence of bacteria and other pollutants. Save the Bay, the environmental advocacy organization, has taken samples from the river since 2008. “Part of our concern was always the high bacteria numbers,” Prescott said.

Prescott said Save the Bay is pleased that the town is taking steps to determine the source of the bacteria found in the July samples. Given the age of the downtown area and some of the homes in the area, and the infrastructure, he said it is not surprising to learn that the system is in need of repair. The discharge could be the result of a cracked pipe or an illegal tie-in from a residence to the stormwater system, Prescott said.

In 2015 Save the Bay issued a call to action asking officials in towns along the river to commit to helping improve the quality of the river. At the time, Prescott rated the river’s overall condition a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. On Thursday, he praised the effort to find the source of human waste being found in the river.

“We have a fairly pristine river being plagued with these historic issues. This is what we were asking for — a collaborative effort,” Prescott said.


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