Editorial: A deadline passes and still we have raw sewage flowing into our river

Editorial: A deadline passes and still we have raw sewage flowing into our river

The Westerly Sun

Westerly has raw sewage running directly into the Pawcatuck River and the response has been ho-hum. In 2017. That was very likely the case in 1917. But in 1970 President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to finally stop this kind of thing and to enforce penalties whenever it was found.

Town and state officials have known about this situation for quite some time. A story in January referred to river samples taken last July that confirmed raw sewage likely coming from the storm drain system that runs from Grove Avenue through Wilcox Park and into the river under the downtown bridge. That story indicated that town and state officials have discussed the possibility of illicit discharges into the river for years.

Where is the sense of urgency?

An environmental engineering firm was hired by the town in December 2016 to investigate the situation on orders from the state Department of Environmental Management, which had 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.”

The state 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.

Westerly may have an old storm and sewer system but it isn’t a large system. This isn’t Boston, and the presumed source area was identified a long time ago. Whether it’s home sewage pipes illegally — or mistakenly — tapped into the storm drainage system or leaking pipes or a mistaken connection between the two systems decades ago — all current theories by the engineering firm, the source should have been identified by now.

Back in April, the firm concluded that a leaking sewer line could be the source of an illicit discharge in a section of the stormwater drainage system in the northeastern corner of the park. The engineers delivered their report to the town and state in May, but the town never returned to the state with a remedy.

The town is ultimately responsible, but the state should be pressuring town officials. Westerly missed the May deadline for submitting an attack plan to the state and now the state has extended the deadline to Sept. 15.

We’re talking about a river that is under consideration for inclusion in the federal National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Legislation passed late in 2014, The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act, calls for a three-year study to determine whether the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers are eligible for this designation, which would then qualify them for federal funding and resource protection efforts.

We’ve got pump-out boats on both sides of the border and we’ve got the Wood Pawcatuck Watershed Association and Save the Bay all contributing efforts to monitor the river and to advocate for continuous improvements in its health.

This should be considered an embarrassment for any town in 2017 and surely for the Ocean State, which talks a good game about its waterways and even eco-tourism. The town should be way ahead of the Sept. 15 deadline for a remediation plan.


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