COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) — Lawmakers in two committees have passed legislation that would give the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) control over the water levels of dams statewide.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lou Raptakis, would require dam owners across the state to get clearance from the DEM to raise or lower the water levels. It would also impose a $60,000 per day fine on dam owners who don’t obtain a permit from the DEM prior to altering the water levels.
The legislation was approved by the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee Wednesday and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee Thursday.
“Just because you have private property doesn’t mean you have unrestricted, unregulated use,” Rep. Jason Knight testified Thursday.
While the proposal applies to all dam owners in Rhode Island, it was sparked by an ongoing feud between the owners of Johnson’s Pond and the residents who live around it.
The Coventry pond has been a point of contention for residents since its dam and waterflow rights were purchased by Soscia Holdings, LLC two years ago. Since then, the owners and the town have been in and out of court disputing the water levels and maintenance of the pond’s dam.
“Soscia Holdings is behaving like environmental terrorists, taking drastic actions to manipulate water levels as a means of punishing residents who dare to complain about the company’s actions,” Raptakis said. “They’ve sought to limit residents’ access to the area by putting up gates, called the police to try to stop people from enjoying the pond, filed frivolous suits and even threatened to turn the pond into a solar panel farm.”
Residents have repeatedly expressed concern over the water levels on the pond, claiming that it had been drained to the point where the rocks and vegetation on the bottom were exposed. Homeowners also reported seeing dying fish and turtles, as well as the presence of toxic blue-green algae, according to Raptakis.
Patrick Dougherty, the attorney representing Soscia Holdings, LLC, has repeatedly argued that the legislation will completely strip his clients of their rights as property owners.
“The real environmental terrorists are the people polluting that pond with the oil and gas from leaky boats,” he told 12 News earlier this year. “If the town and the legislature think they are going to come in and take control of my client’s property, they are wrong.”
Dougherty believes the DEM doesn’t have experience operating his client’s dam, which is another reason why the owners should have full control.
But Raptakis argues that it’s the dam owners that don’t know what they’re talking about.
“Johnson’s Pond is too important and impactful a resource to permit important decisions in time of emergency to be made by untrained laypeople,” Raptakis said.
Jon Pascua of the Johnston’s Pond Civic Association agrees.
“It doesn’t actually take away their rights at all,” Pascua said. “It just says, much like when you are putting an addition on your home, that you need permission to make sure you are doing it right and safely.”
The water levels don’t just impact the roughly 600 residents who live on the pond.
Raptakis said the water that is being drained from the pond is actually spilling over into the Pawtuxet River, endangering the properties of approximately 240,000 Rhode Islanders in at least five communities.
“The environmental integrity and safety of Johnson’s Pond is not just a Coventry concern, but a regional priority,” Coventry Councilwoman Hillary Lima said. “Rhode Island’s wetland ecosystems are largely interconnected and artificial adjustments to one are likely to affect others and cause irreparable damage.”
12 News reached out to Dougherty regarding the bill clearing both committees but has not heard back. It now heads to the full House and Senate for consideration.
Raptakis has also introduced legislation that would allocate funding for the DEM to conduct an environmental study on the pond and surrounding wetlands, as well as transfer Another bill the right to regulate its water levels to the town between April 1 and November 1.