Showdown with the State
The town of Portsmouth is in a showdown with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which is ordering a section of the community to install sewers - at a cost of more than $40 million. But what if voters reject a bond to pay for it? This week Jim Hummel looks at an issue that could set a precedent for other communities in Rhode Island.
It may not look like a battleground, but the northern section of Portsmouth has been the site of a decades-long skirmish between the town and the state Department of Environmental management, over something that is largely unseen: Contaminated water from storm drains making its way into the Sakonnet River to the south and what the locals call Blue Bill Cove to the North.
After years of studies, debates, public meetings and closed doors sessions, DEM last fall finally said enough: It determined the town is violating the state's water pollution act and the agency's water quality regulations. It fined Portsmouth $186,000 - calculated on years of noncompliance - and ordered the community within two years to begin installing a sewer system for two sections of town known as Island Park, and Portsmouth Park.
Combined they have about 1,000 homes, all currently on septic or cesspool systems.
``There's no public sewer system in town.''
Larry Fitzmorris is president of the watchdog group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens. He says there is no doubt the town needs to address the issue of storm water runoff and failing septic systems.
Fitzmorris: ``We were slow fixing that problem. And the town of Portsmouth was dragging its feet for a lot of complicated political reasons and there is some merit in that fine. in my judgment.''
But Fitzmorris takes issue with DEM's order of a sewers-only approach and agrees with the town's decision to fight the Notice of Violation order, which is now working its way through the
DEM administrative process.
He questions how the town - and specifically those who would have to hook up to the sewers, small houses on tiny lots - can afford the price tag of the proposal.
Fitzmorris: ``Essentially I think $42 million is probably a fair guess for an opening number for a cost to the town on bonding. We calculated that cost of the Island Park people at around $57,000 over 20 years with about $10,000 of that in the first year. And when you get in Portsmouth Park behind us it would be about $45,000/year.''
Fitzmorris says there are far more inexpensive ways to contain and treat the contaminated water. Alternatives that would satisfy DEM's standards - but he says the agency doesn't want to hear it.
Fitzmorris: ``This is a problem that could be solved by following these bad storm drain emissions up the pipe and looking for the sources. Now we may not find all of them but we certainly can find a lot of them.''
He also says sewers might not solve the entire problem.
Fitzmorris: ``The people in Fall River will periodically dump raw sewage into the Bay.
They're simply at maximum on their system and occasionally they have to do some pumping over the side, so to speak. So that has an occasional effect on us.''
And it raises the question, what if voters reject the bond that would have to be passed in order to pay for the sewers? What then? It's a question that someone DEM's point man on the issue, Angelo Liberti, at a meeting.
Fitzmorris: ``There was a kind of pause and Mr. Liberti said we'll we'd have to try and educate them and we would expect you to put it up again for another vote. In other words I guess we'd all go to re-education camp and get our attitude adjusted. Now that's not much a plan and I think if DEM had the authority to force this thing through we wouldn't be doing what we're doing now. We wouldn't be having this dance . They would have just come down here and showed us the laws and said you're going to do it.''
But Fitzmorris - and many others - believe there is a larger scenario in play: A plan to force the residents of Island Park out of their homes, paving the way for development, complete with sewer service. Then to extend sewers to the west side of town bordering Narragansett Bay.
Fitzmorris: ``If the sewers come in the land that is available down here, in terms of very small houses down here, they can tear those houses own and build a much larger, three-level complexes and sell them off, developers clearly see that as an opportunity.''
Hummel: ``So what does DEM have to say about all of this? The agency declined our request for an on-camera interview - saying its policy is not to comment on matters that are in litigation - and since Portsmouth has officially appealed the notice of violation, DEM considers it a legal issue.''
But the people in Portsmouth have had plenty to say as the prospect of putting in sewers has moved from concept to reality.
Fitzmorris: ``But this is the first time DEM has actually come to a community that doesn't have a sewer system and ordered them to build one. And in that regard, we are a test case. I think they've ordered us to do that without regard to the heavy financial burden it places on a small town like Portsmouth.''
Hummel: ``What if the state came to you and said: `Portsmouth, this is what we feel is the best thing and we're going to provide a funding stream to put the sewers in.' Would you agree with that, or take issue with it?''
Fitzmorris: ``We would still have some issue with it. There is also the issue of fundamentally transforming these communities and especially Island Park. It's right on the beach as you can see with a nice little breeze today. We have nice breezes in the summer - it's a wonderful place. But there's a lot of people on the lower end of the middle class who would be forced to move out and because the prices would rise and it would change the entire nature of this little community down here. But there's also the broader legal question of whether DEM has the legal authority to force us to pass a bond to pay for all of this. And I question whether they do at all.''
In Portsmouth, Jim Hummel for the Hummel Report.