PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A civil lawsuit has been filed against the city of Woonsocket and a pair of private contractors for allegedly polluting the Blackstone River with partially treated sewage.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha announced the legal action Wednesday, along with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Terry Gray.
The civil complaint alleges the city, along with Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., and Synagro Woonsocket, LLC, violated state environmental laws in their operation of the wastewater treatment plant located off Cumberland Hill Road. Neronha and Gray said there have been at least three instances of partially treated sewage entering the river over the past year, including as recently as March 1.
The DEM issued a warning earlier this month to avoid contact with the river. The order was lifted Wednesday because actions were taken by the city and the vendors to get the situation under control, according to the DEM.
The facility is permitted to discharge fully treated wastewater into the river, but officials said the DEM has sent several letters of noncompliance to the city for failing to follow the conditions of that permit.
Watch: Woonsocket Public Works Director responds to lawsuit (story continues below)
Neronha said he believes the contractors had the resources to be able to correct the problem and make sure it didn’t happen again.
“We expect them to step up and fix the problem, and that requires engineering, evaluation and an investment in corrective action,” Gray said. “And the fact that that hasn’t happened is extremely frustrating.”
“For people that are actually depending now on the river for recreational resource, and in some cases, revenue, right? There’s field trips, there’s tourism that goes on the river – that creates impacts that are unacceptable,” he added.
“The environmental laws on the books, like the Clean Water Act and the Freshwater Wetlands Act, those don’t mean anything if they’re not enforced,” Topher Hamblett of Save The Bay said. “It’s high time this got dealt with.”
Watch: Full news conference (story continues below)
Woonsocket Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino said the city has been working with its contractors to fix the issues, adding the lawsuit is disappointing, unnecessary, and unprecedented.
Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt echoed D’Agostino, saying they are disappointed with the lawsuit since they say the city has borne the brunt of hosting the treatment plant. D’Agostino said 75% of the state’s waste—and waste from Massachusetts and Connecticut—comes to the facility to be incinerated.
“A lawsuit will not provide the necessary solutions to resolving the ever-growing demand of communities across 3 states to dispose of their liquid sludge in the City Woonsocket,” Baldelli-Hunt said in a statement.
According to D’Agostino, the plant has won awards in the past for complying with the DEM permit and attributes the recent issues to the facility’s aging infrastructure.
“I’m not saying we’ll never have another upset, I won’t say that, but we’re trying to do everything we can to prevent it,” D’Agostino said.
He added they are hoping to correct the issues by acquiring new equipment.
“We’re going to continue being proactive, and try to remedy any problem that arises,” D’Agostino said. “Then we have a big decision. Do we want to continue incinerating everybody’s waste here? That will cause ripple effects across the tri-state, if you will.”
Woonsocket resident Jon Berard told 12 News he alerted the DEM to the issue. He said he was running on the bike path when he noticed something was off.
“There’s often a smell coming from that facility. Woonsocket residents are no stranger to it,” Berard recalled. “But as I approached the bike path, I smelled a different smell. A much worse smell.”
Jacobs is an engineering firm contracted by the city to operate and maintain the wastewater treatment center, while Synagro controls the incineration part of the facility, which also treats sewage from North Smithfield, Blackstone and Bellingham.
Synagro spokesperson Frank McMahon released a statement saying the firm hadn’t received the complaint as of Wednesday evening.
“Synagro has worked collaboratively with Woonsocket for more than 30 years to support the biosolids management needs of the city and most other Rhode Island municipalities. We are committed to continuing this important, necessary service that’s critical to the state while meeting state and federal environmental standards,” McMahon wrote. “While we have yet been served with the complaint, once served, we plan to review it in detail over the coming days.”
Read the full civil complaint here: