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A Hummel Report Investigation

Better than Expected

It has been called the biggest public works project you'll never see: a three-mile underground tunnel. Its purpose: to catch up to 65 million gallons of sewage and storm drain runoff that used to go directly into Narragansett Bay untreated. This week Jim Hummel breaks the news that 2 1/2 years after the tunnel went online water quality in the Bay - and particularly the Providence River - has improved dramatically.

 

SCRIPT

Hummel: ``This week, something a little different.  Call it a You Paid For It...and Got It. A public works project in Rhode Island that was on time, on budget and is doing better than it originally was expected to.''

The water in Narragansett Bay is cleaner. A lot cleaner than it was just a couple of years ago.

And the Providence River: that may be the biggest surprise of all.

Torgan: `I grew up in Providence, Jim, and as a kid this river was a joke. It smelled bad, you could see sewage, sanitary items and no one really used it.''

Save the Bay's John Torgan was not alone in his assessment. Torgan, who has spent much of the last two decades trying to clean up and preserve Rhode Island's greatest natural asset, says in the late '70s the federal government declared the city's waste treatment plant one of the worst in the nation - with raw sewage pouring into the river.

That lead to the formation of the Narragansett Bay Commission, which took over treatment operations of the city's sewage at Field's Point.

Torgan: Back  in the 1980s and the early '90s every single time it rained you had millions of gallons of raw sewage and storm water pouring into the river and it would close shellfish beds - too much bacteria even to open the swimming beaches.  It was  disgusting.''

Now, 30 years later, the water quality has improved dramatically in Narragansett Bay and even the Providence River, which has been permanently closed to swimming and shell fishing.

The reason: the $350 million Phase 1 of a Combined Sewer Overflow project - which went online 2 1/2 years ago. Now when there's a half inch of rain or more,  the results are much different.

Samons:  ``Since the tunnel went online, 2.7 billion gallons of sewage that otherwise would have gone out into the Bay has now been captured and treated.  That exceeds our  expectations.''

The Bay Commission's Jamie Samons says when the project, which was decades in the making, broke ground in 2001, it was the largest public works project in Rhode Island history.

Samons: ``We call this the biggest project you'll never see because 99 percent of the construction of this first phase was underground. That means for the most part we didn't mess up people's traffic - we weren't ripping up streets in their neighborhood. But it also means they don't know about it, because they don't see it.''

It involved boring a 3-mile wide tunnel from just west of the State House, across the city to Field's Point on the Providence River. The tunnel is 300 feet below ground and has a diameter of 26 feet. It can capture up to 65 million gallons of sewage and rainwater - holding them until the treatment plant can process it.

The tunnel went online in November of 2008 and since then the Department of Health has kept a close eye on the water quality in various parts of Providence River, including Rose Larisa Park and Sabin Point in East Providence,  where people are not supposed to swim, but do anyway.

The results from the Providence river have turned more than  a few heads.

Torgan: ``It met standards roughly 85 percent of the time, on par with the state's licensed bathing beaches down in South County. That's really good and that shows us that the Combined Sewer Overflow tunnel is working.''

By extension it means other beaches where bacterial levels have been a problem, like the town beaches in Warren and Bristol,  look lot better.

The containment tunnel, which leads to a pumping station just off Allens Avenue is the reason. An elevator descends more than 300 feet into the ground where a series of pipes and pumps process millions of gallons every day after heavy rains.

The only anomaly in the underground pump station: a steady trickle of water coming in through the concrete walls deep below the ground, giving it a catacomb-like feel and the realization that even with this state-of-the-art facility, engineers can't totally seal it off from groundwater.

The Bay Commission has two more phases planned over the next decade, with a total price tag of more than a billion dollars. And that cost has been picked up by the commission's 80,000 customers.

Samons: ``They've see their sewer bills triple over the past 10 years. We started out with some of the lowest rates in the country. Now we're at about the median for the nation,  for the the nation, the state.''

Hummel: ``How has that gone over with your ratepayers?''

Samons: ``Every time there's a rate increase,  obvioulsy there's some pushback from the ratepayers. I think for the most part the people of Rhode Island and especially the ratepayers of  the Narragansett Bay Commission realize  what an important environmental project this is.''

For years the dividing line on closure has been the Conimicut light, across to Nayatt Point in Barrington. Anything north has been closed to shell fishing and swimming. And while Torgan is hopeful that one day that line may move, he says a lot more work needs to be done.

Torgan:  ``We've seen some positive signs, but it's too early to claim victory. Too much sewage, too much storm water, is still getting into the Bay. We're seeing high bacteria counts still in places it shouldn't happen, in the South County coastal ponds; places like Bonnet Shores, places like the Newport First, Second and Third Beach. Those places should never close. Scarborough, they should always be open and we have a ways to go to address that. But what I think this shows us is that some investment in infrastructure and foresight really does pay big dividends sooner, and in a bigger way than anyone thought they would.''
Along Narragansett Bay,  

Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.

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