WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Repeated releases of untreated or partially treated sewage have fouled the Blackstone River twice this month, as well as last year. The City of Woonsocket has ordered the contractor that operates the incinerator at its wastewater treatment plant to curb the amount of liquid sludge it can accept from municipalities it serves across New England.
The Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Facility, which completed a $40 million upgrade to its wastewater plant in 2014, needs a multimillion-dollar upgrade, and how the city handles the issue could impact the region’s capacity for treating its wastewater.
The faulty incinerator plant hasn’t been improved in at least 20 years.
Only about 10 percent of the incinerator’s capacity treats Woonsocket’s sludge, according to Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino, who said the other 90 percent serves 49 municipalities and other customers in the New England corridor. They range in location from Burrillville to Westerly to Newport in Rhode Island, to Jewett City and Thomson in Connecticut, and New Bedford, and even Edgartown and Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts.
Potential ways forward could include finding a new contractor to operate the incinerator, or Woonsocket dealing only with its own sludge, which would force the plant’s current customers to truck their sewage somewhere else.
D’Agostino said proposals were discussed in a closed session meeting Monday.
Rehabilitating the plant could cost “tens of millions of dollars” and involve local and state leaders, D’Agostino said.
“The city of Woonsocket is at a crossroads if you will,” D’Agostino said. “We can either not be in the incineration business anymore as the host, or we can upgrade the facility.”
But Woonsocket needs help, he said.
Discharges at the plant have led to public notices warning people to stay out of the Blackstone River from Woonsocket to the Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket because of potential bacteria from partly treated sewage spewing into the river.
Another release — the fourth in a year — was reported Tuesday, just before a recent advisory was set to expire, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management spokesman Michael Healey told the Globe. The notice has been in place since a discharge on March 1.
DEM is working with the city and its contractors (Synagro and Jacobs) to fix the problem “ASAP,” while continuing to review compliance and enforcement options. The maximum penalty for noncompliance is $25,000 a day, but no penalties have been levied.
DEM sent the Globe the following description of the problem:
“Synagro dewaters the liquid sludge to produce a “cake” that is then incinerated. This dewatering occurs in centrifuges and the ‘centrate’ (the low-solids liquid that comes off the centrifuge) is sent to the wastewater treatment facility (WWTF). Normally, the centrate is directed to the gravity thickener for further solids removal prior to flowing into the WWTF. However, since the gravity thickener is down for repairs, the centrate is sent directly to the WWTF. Synagro has installed frac tanks (large tanks used to settle solids) to get some additional solids removal from the centrate before discharging into the WWTF. We have also told the City to evaluate and provide a schedule to install a portable gravity thickener until the permanent gravity thickener is repaired (which is expected to take about a year).”
The city has ordered that Synagro limit the liquid sludge it accepts from other wastewater facilities until further notice. In addition, the city is removing additional solids from its wastewater plant using the portable filter press brought on-site after the last violation in June.
An inspection report shows a lack of communication, equipment malfunctions, staffing problems, and real-time data-sharing deficiencies between the contractors, Synagro, the operator of the incinerator, and Jacobs, the operator of the wastewater facility.
D’Agostino said issues at the wastewater facility have led to public complaints about odors and discolored waters.
City resident Johnathan Berard, who tagged DEM in a video showing sewage bubbling in the Blackstone river, said the smell of sewage is “omnipresent” at all times in the city. He lives about a quarter-mile from the head of the Blackstone Bikeway, a popular recreation trail that follows the river.
“It’s especially bad in the summer and it hangs over the city,” said Berard, who has lived in Woonsocket for 10 years. “I hate to say I’ve gotten used to it, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
In Berard’s neighborhood, there is a hospital across the river, and he’s concerned about the environmental issues associated with burning human waste.
“When you think of it from an economic development [perspective], people don’t want to come here, it smells,” said Berard, an environmental advocate and student of governance. “From an environmental [perspective], no good things go in the air when you burn things. We’re burning human waste. What are the health implications from this stuff?
“As a resident, it’s infuriating.”
John Marsland, president and founder of Friends of the Blackstone, listened to the public city council meeting Monday and said two bids were given to fix the incinerator’s broken gravity thickener: one for $198,000 and one for $545,000. His group has worked for 30 years to make the Blackstone a recreational resource in the area.
“These continued releases, when the community sees them on [the] news, and news outlets write about them, that doesn’t make people think in their head, ‘I want to go there,’” Marsland said. “It takes a step backward from where we are going as a recreational resource.”
Marsland was frustrated that no action has been taken by DEM to fine the offenders.
“If they aren’t going to get fined, and they are going to have an overrun and nothing happens to them, they are going to do it again. There’s no recourse. They haven’t had to pay any damages.”
Marsland said the community needs routine updates on the plant to help people understand the problems.
”I don’t know what it will take for people to believe in the river again,” he said.
The Blackstone was polluted during the height of the American Industrial Revolution with dyes, detergents, grease, oil, chemicals, industrial waste, and residential dumping.
The Environmental Protection Agency called the river “the most polluted river in the country with toxic sediments” in 1990.
Community clean-up efforts and monitoring have led to significantly improved water quality.
Healey said action against the city is overdue.
“Whether the enforcement action we take focuses just on last year’s violations or if it includes last year’s and this most recent violation, we need to file that soon,” Healey said. “It would go to the city because it owns the facility, but we don’t want to put the idea out there that this is only on Woonsocket; it’s not. They have two vendors they pay to operate this facility.”
Woonsocket and Cranston’s incinerator plants burn about 91 percent of the state’s sludge. One percent is composted as fertilizer after being treated, and about 8 percent is landfilled or sent out of state to be landfilled or incinerated.
Healey said the main benefit of incineration is keeping the sludge from taking up space at the Central Landfill. DEM regulates sludge shipments and emissions.
The Central Landfill, located in Johnston, R.I., is considered a disposal site of last resort.
Hosting an incinerator saves the city about $4 million a year, and Synagro pays a $1 million host fee to run the incinerator plant.
New England has a shortage of incinerators, which puts additional strain on the Woonsocket facility.
“I believe it should be a regional responsibility,” D’Agostino said of the repair costs. “Why in God’s name would a city pay for 10 percent of use, and 100 percent of the cost? We’re going to have an in-depth discussion about this with the city. I don’t know if Synagro has the appetite to continue.”