CUMBERLAND — John Marsland, president and founder of Friends of the Blackstone, has been working more than half his life to clean up the Blackstone River watershed, but after a leak on Sunday, all of that work is in jeopardy.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management issued a warning Sunday and again Friday, telling residents along the Blackstone River from Woonsocket to Pawtucket to avoid water activities following “unpermitted” wastewater releases. DEM could not say how much wastewater, which contains raw sewage, has been released but the plant treats millions of gallons daily from the Woonsocket and nearby areas daily.
“What’s happening in the plant is that the solid waste is not being segregated or separated from the stream,” DEM spokesman Mike Healy told the Globe. “With respect to how much, we really can’t give you a pinpoint answer on that. Doing some basic math, this is a very busy plant. It treats up to 10 million gallons a day.”
Marsland, who lives 3 miles from the treatment facility and started Friends of the Blackstone in 1990, said this year is the 50th anniversary of Zero Away Pollution program, known as ZAP, the first cleanup project on the river. During that rejuvenation effort, pieces of machinery, trash, and large items that were thrown into the river for decades were pulled out.
Friends of the Blackstone and its partners have worked for decades to make the river a recreation destination. Not only do bikers ride alongside the river on the Blackstone Bikeway, but people fish, canoe, and kayak in the low waters.
DEM regulates wastewater treatment facilities in the state and continues to investigate the cause of the discharges daily.
The failures may have resulted in the loss of full treatment, according to DEM, which is observing steps taken by vendors to become compliant. The state issued letters of noncompliance to the facility in November 2021 and March 2022 regarding operations and maintenance concerns.
Residents are warned not use the water for recreation from the location of discharge, the plant at 11 Cumberland Hill Road in Woonsocket, to the Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket. This includes the Blackstone Canal and Scott Pond in Lincoln.
The advisory will continue indefinitely.
The City of Woonsocket owns the wastewater plant, where day-to-day operations are contracted by Texas-based consulting and engineering firm Jacobs. The sludge treatment operations are contracted by Baltimore-based Synagro Technologies, Inc.
The City of Woonsocket has not yet returned calls for comment.
Water that is released into the river is treated at the plant with chlorine to kill organisms such as escherichia coli, commonly called e. coli, in fecal matter. The pollutants are removed in accordance with the facility’s state discharge permit before the water can be returned to the Blackstone River. However, it is possible, the DEM says, that water is no longer being fully treated.
“A part of that wastewater stream going into the river is solid waste,” Healy said. “We are talking about a very substantial amount. There’s no way around it. It’s very very troubling. We don’t know if this is a process problem or an equipment problem or a combination of both. ... They need to fix what needs to be fixed to get this back into compliance ASAP.”
DEM personnel have collected water samples at 20 locations in the estuarine portion of the Providence and Seekonk rivers below Slater Dam south to Conimicut Point. The analysis did not show elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria. The discharges are not adversely affecting the water quality of shellfish grounds in the lower Providence River and Upper Narragansett Bay.
Routine closure of the Lower Providence River E conditional shellfish area has been in effect from June 4 through June 16 because of rain.
“The Blackstone River is a historic river that’s only become a clean water body through decades worth of work, and hundreds of thousands of people who care about it,” Healy says. “It’s a treasure and recreational resource for many many many people.”
The DEM announcement has led to the cancellation of a number of events hosted by Friends of the Blackstone, including an upcoming canoe trip for people who want to release stress and anxiety, and a water chestnut pulls at the end of June near Valley Falls Pond.
“How do you get people to volunteer?” Marsland says. “We spent a lot of time to change the perception for people to consider this a resource. What kind of battle will we have for people to embrace the river now?
“We are going backward with this wastewater.”
The DEM has been in contact with volunteer groups and spoke at a recent Rhode Island Rivers Council Meeting but Marsland said they did not have many answers about the discharges. He said his group has called a conservation law firm to inquire about a potential lawsuit.
”Right now we are relying on DEM but it’s not their fault,” Marsland said. “They are doing the best they can to see what’s going on and how to fix it. It’s bad management practices at the treatment plant.”
Friends of the Blackstone was planning a new initiative called Blackstone River Commons, which is an expedition on the river from Woonsocket to Pawtucket on Aug. 11 -14. And the Blackstone River Collaborative created a 20-point action plan to make the river cleaner and better for the community.
“The stars were ready to align,” Marsland said. “Now, all that is in jeopardy. This year we had so much planned for the next few months and even the next few weeks. We started a thing called ‘Blue Mind,’ how being around water can ease stress and anxiety. We have benches set up and down the river, but who wants to look at the sewage going down the river?”