The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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Clean Enough?

The selection of former North Providence Mayor and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis as town manager of North Kingstown took many by surprise - including members of a citizens advisory committee that unanimously recommended someone else for the job. This week: Jim Hummel speaks with two of the committee members, the council president who advocated bringing Mollis on board, and we take a look at the search for a manager in a similar town that had a more transparent selection process.

 

SCRIPT:

The science tells us that Narragansett Bay has not been this clean in 150 years.

The days of floating debris and sometimes raw sewage after heavy rainstorms - are squarely in the rearview mirror - largely because of a massive combined sewer overflow project that went online eight years ago. Often called The Biggest Project You’ll Never see, it is an underground holding tank of sorts that allows overflow to be contained, then fully treated, after a heavy rainfall.

Marshall: ``We hear anecdotally from the shell fishermen, from the boaters that they’ve never seen the Bay this clean in their lifetime.’’

But Ray Marshall has also heard it from a scientist at URI, studying the water quality of Narragansett Bay. Marshall is the executive director of the Narragansett Bay Commission, which handles the sewage for a third of the entire state: including the communities in metropolitan Providence and the Blackstone Valley - serving a total of 360,000 people.

We first reported six years ago on Phase 1 of the CSO project, mandated by the federal Clean Water Act to achieve better water quality in the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.

That first phase carried a $375 million price tag. Phase 2 was completed at an additonal cost of $213 million - a hefty price tag born solely by the 80,000 customers of the Bay Commission. So while customers don’t see where their sewage goes after it leaves their homes or businesses, they do get a monthly reminder of what it costs to treat.  The water improvement projects translate into rates that have more than tripled over the past 15 years, from $135 a year in 2001 to $477 a year in 2016 for an average homeowner.

Marshall: ``The improvements have been dramatic, there’s still more to do. There are other sources of pollution, other than combined sewer overflows and treatment plants, such as storm water, all of these things take time and they cost money.’’

On paper the first two phases were supposed to take care of 60 percent of the pollution, but many feel it’s done much more than that. A planned Phase 3 would take care of the remaining 40 percent and will be the costliest segment - with an original estimate of more than $800 million. The commission has been able to make adjustments to reduce the cost to $760 million - but it still has some asking: how clean, is clean enough?

Hummel: ``How much is your Phase 3, $760 million extra, hundreds of dollars a month to your ratepayers, going to buy you in terms of cleanliness out in the Bay?. I’m not saying it’s ever going to be perfect, but some people are wondering is that Phase 3 worth what we’re going to get in the long run. Is that a question you ask here a lot?

Marshall: ``It is, our board really struggled with that back in 2015, almost two years ago now, and they sat here for hours and hours at a couple of different meetings, trying to balance the water quality benefits versus the cost to the ratepayers. In the end they had to make the decision that they’re responsible for making. The Clean Water Act demands it, whether you have millions of gallons of pollution or only hundreds of gallons of pollution going into a water body, it’s still pollution. The Clean Water Act says you have to get it out.’’

The commission has been negotiating with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management - and by extension the EPA -  to push back and spread out the construction timetable for Phase 3, which runs up the eastern side of the Seekonk River, into Pawtucket and Central Falls. That means rates should remain stable for at least the next several years.

Marshall: ``So, instead of completing Phase 3 in seven years, which would be approximately 2025, we asked for 13 additional years out to 2038. That’s what we submitted to DEM. The thought is we’ll stretch the cost out over a greater period of time.’’

And the start of Phase 3 is at least three years off.  That means some of the debt from Phase 1 will be retired - and that money available when that last phase begins.  The commission has also been trying to reduce its own substantial energy costs to treat sewage, by installing three wind turbines at the Fields Point Plant along the Providence River. The Bay Commission also just bought another three turbines this past year put up by a developer in western Coventry. Combined they are now providing about half of the commission’s energy needs.

But what about the financial burden to the ratepayers? Marshall says federal guidelines say homeowners should not be paying more than 2 percent of median household incomes for sewage rates. But, he points out, those figures are vastly different for customers in Central Falls than they would be on the East Side of Providence, both communities served by the commission.

Marshall: ``The 2 percent is not a hard ceiling, it’s a guideline that when you start to creep past that, or go zooming past it as the case may be, that’s when you really have the ability to go the regulators and say: Our ratepayers need relief. We understand the importance of water quality improvements, and the need to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, but there has to be some sense of reasonableness. You can build things that people can’t afford.’’

Another question is how will a new administration in Washington - one that has been critical of the EPA - affect projects and standards going forward?

Hummel: ``Has there been any talk about a relaxing or a rolling back of clean water standards that would trickle down to you in terms of Phase 3?’’

Marshall: ``that’s unclear at this time. I know that the Trump Administration has basically said for every new regulation that a governmental agency wants to  impose, they have to roll back two. So I don’t know how within the EPA umbrella, all of that will play out.’’

Hummel: ``It’s never good enough under the Clean Water Act until you reach 100 percent, is that what I heard?’’

Marshall: ``That’s correct.’’

Hummel: ``And so that could be an awful lot of money for that last 5 or 10 percent.’’

Marshall: ``It could be.’’

Hummel: ``It’s the law of diminishing returns isn’t it?’’

Marshall: ``Absolutely, it is.’’

Hummel: ``I’m not trying to get you to bend the rules, I’m just saying as people who are looking at this they’re like: How clean does it have to be?’’

Marshall: ``We’re probably three years away from any major constructing, so hopefully in that period of time the skies will clear and we’ll all understand what it is we’re supposed to do and then we can move forward - or not - depending on how things tumble into place. But I can’t imagine that we won’t have to do some form of Phase 3.’’

In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.