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ENVIRONMENT

R.I. takes legal action against City of Woonsocket, operators of faulty facility that processes region’s wastewater

The civil complaint states that RI DEM has sent the city and its contractors several letters of non-compliance for failure to meet the conditions of the facility’s discharge permit, which requires that all wastewater be fully treated before being discharged into the Blackstone River

What appears to be wastewater from the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility (bottom) pours into the Blackstone River in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on March 5, 2023.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and the state’s Department of Environmental Management took legal action on Wednesday against the operators of the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility, which has repeatedly dumped untreated sewage into the Blackstone River over the last year.

A civil complaint was filed in Providence County Superior Court against the City of Woonsocket and its contractors — Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc. and Baltimore-based Synagro Woonsocket LLC. Neronha said the discharges had gone on for “long enough.”

“The river deserves better than [what] the city of Woonsocket, Synagro, and Jacobs [are providing],” Neronha said at a press conference at his office in Providence on Wednesday afternoon. “So do the people of Woonsocket.”

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“The Blackstone River was a dumping ground in our state for years... Not anymore,” added Neronha, who credited environmental activists with ensuring the river could become a “recreational resource” over many years.

When operating correctly, the facility discharges treated wastewater into the Blackstone River. But earlier this month, the facility reported discharges of partly-treated sewage into the river. Incidents of untreated sewage being discharged into the riverdate back to at least March 2022, which has drawn criticism from local environmental groups.

The releases are due to equipment failures at the facility’s solid waste incinerator that have been ongoing since March 2022. DEM approved a temporary filter that has been in place since the last release. A gravity thickener that removes solids from liquid sludge before wastewater continues to the treatment plant must be replaced if the incinerator is to continue operating, according to a city of Woonsocket inspection report.

The facility, which completed a $40 million upgrade to its wastewater plant in 2014, needs another multimillion-dollar upgrade. 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, as previously reported by the Globe.

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Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The civil complaint states that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has sent the city and its contractors several letters of non-compliance for failure to meet the conditions of its discharge permit. The permit requires that all wastewater generated by the facility be fully treated before being discharged into the river.

Neronha said the city and contractors “failed” to meet the conditions of the facility’s discharge permit, which could result in up to $35,000 worth of fines each day the issue persists. However, fines have not yet been issued.

“I am not interested in burdening the taxpayers of Woonsocket,” said Neronha. But he said his action in the courts should show “the tab is running. And there are consequences.”

Woonsocket Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino told the Globe on Wednesday that he found Neronha and DEM’s legal action “disappointing.”

“We are very proactive, we are continuing to be proactive. We are bringing in equipment as we speak to correct actions to make things better,” said D’Agostino in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t help when you apply what I would describe as political pressure to attack a city that does the bidding of many [of the] region’s facilities.”

A spokeswoman for Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt could not be reached for comment.

Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for Synagro, said the city and the company have worked together for more than three decades. “We are committed to continuing this important, necessary service that’s critical to the state while meeting state and federal environmental standards. While we have yet been served with the complaint, once served, we plan to review it in detail over the coming days,” McMahon said.

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Only about 10 percent of the facility’s capacity treats Woonsocket’s sludge, D’Agostino said. He 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. The facility also serves communities on Martha’s Vineyard.

Of the untreated wastewater dumping into the river, “nobody takes it lightly,” said D’Agostino. “It couldn’t come at a worse time, really. We’re under duress enough, we don’t need to the [attorney general] piling on us.”

Neronha told reporters during his press conference that the city “faces some challenges. That’s not lost on me.” But D’Agostino, who commended personnel at Synagro and Jacobs, added, “Obviously there is an equipment problem. A facility problem.”

DEM Director Terry Gray told the Globe that he estimates the untreated sewage discharging into the Blackstone could effect “30 to 50 percent” of the river, which flows approximately 48 miles.

Gray said DEM has inspected the facility 36 times since February 2022. On Tuesday, the agency directed Woonsocket officials and its operators to install improvements to temporary solids-removal equipment to bring the plant into compliance until permanent repairs can be made. DEM is also “preparing to bring a notice of violation to hold the operators accountable for the failures,” said Gray.

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Gray said he kayaks on the Blackstone River during the summer months. He called the situation “incredibly frustrating” and said non-compliance is “just not acceptable.” He alleged that the contracts with the plant’s operators “have the resources” to address the issues.

Neronha said regulatory actions by DEM — such as letters — have not resulted in compliance.

“It became plain to me that if this office and DEM did not take action together, then this problem will not be solved. The parties have had their chances,” said Neronha, who called the city and the contractors “equally responsible.”

Polluted water pools along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island, where wastewater containing raw sewage has been improperly released into the waterway.Carlos Muñoz

The complaint claims multiple state laws had been violated, including the Rhode Island Clean Water Act, the Freshwater Wetlands Act, the Environmental Rights Act, and the common law of public nuisance as a result of the discharges.

Neronha said over the last several months, there have been a number of “temporary fixes.” He said DEM has attempted to work with the facility’s management for more than a year. He declined to say whether criminal charges could be brought to against the contractors or the City of Woonsocket.

On Wednesday afternoon, DEM lifted an advisory warning the public to avoid using the river for primary and secondary recreation, like swimming, wading, kayaking, and fishing.

The Blackstone River 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.

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“The ongoing discharge violates the law and is an insult to all Rhode Islanders,” said Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay. “Those that violate environmental laws must be held accountable.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.