WESTERLY — Successful adoption and implementation of a program to rid the town of unauthorized connections to the municipal sewer system could mean the difference between a $15 million upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant on Margin Street and a $30 million upgrade, officials said Monday during a Town Council meeting.
Bill Beauregard, assistant director of public works, said negotiations between town officials and officials with the state Department of Environmental Management, on specifications of a new permit the town needs to continue discharging wastewater into the Pawcatuck River included an offer to reduce the amount of rainwater that is making its way to the plant from unauthorized connections. Town and state officials reached an "understanding the town would participate in this program and other programs to reduce inflow and reduce treatment and overall outflow into the receiving waters," Beauregard said.
Should the town opt not to implement the program, Beauregard said the DEM could impose stricter permit specifications that would require more nitrogen to be removed from wastewater during the treatment process. The higher standards would necessitate a $30 million upgrade of the treatment plant rather than the estimated $15 upgrade associated with a draft permit the town is seeking.
Beauregard also provided the council with new figures to illustrate the costs associated with the unauthorized connections. A rain storm on Oct. 27, 2019, resulted in a wastewater flow of nearly four times the daily average at the treatment plan, which, he said, cost $6,000 for chemicals and electricity usage to treat.
"Obviously it's a serious problem … 10 rain events, that's $60,000," Beauregard said.
On Monday, the council continued working on proposed amendments to the municipal sewer ordinance. The amendments would allow town officials or designated contractors to inspect residences suspected of having unauthorized connections to the system to carry stormwater off their properties. Once the inspections are competed, town officials would notify property owners and require disconnection from the system within a specified time period.
Councilors also discussed whether or not to include language in the ordinance that would allow for potential forgiveness of loans under a proposed program aimed at helping property owners disconnect from the sewer system.
Some council members said they would prefer attaching liens to properties that do not pay back loans from the proposed loan program rather than forgiving loans. Council members agreed the town should seek grant funding to help property owners.
"If you forgive one than you have to forgive all. It's the only fair way to do it," said Town Councilor Philip Overton.
Councilor Christopher Duhamel said many of the unauthorized connections date back to a time when property owners had no other means to deal with stormwater because current road drainage technology had not been developed.
"When we talk about illegal hookups, these are historic neighborhoods that just didn’t catch up," Duhamel said.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno said she was inclined to have the town provide assistance to residents.
"If we're going to see a benefit to the town, why would we not, at a certain point, say, 'Let's not make the homeowner pay all of this because some of these people simply did not have any other option to drain'" their properties, Giorno said.
Officials hope the inspections will help determine the number of unauthorized connections and a rough idea of the cost to disconnect and address stormwater on specific properties.
The council is expected to continue reviewing the proposed ordinance amendments during a meeting scheduled for Monday. If the council moves the ordinance amendments forward, a public hearing would eventually be conducted prior to adoption.
Duhamel said he is hopeful residents and business owners will read the proposed amendments and provide input to the council.