Woonsocket's fiscal crisis may have an unexpected consequence: the end of improvements to wastwater treatment systems.
Woonsocket’s state leaders have submitted a bill that would force the city to halt all construction and prevent any further measures from being taken to meet the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s nutrient wastewater treatment standards until December 2017.
“As state lawmakers, it’s our responsibility to take this position in order to protect the interests of our constituents. The bottom line is: The city is near the brink of bankruptcy and we cannot afford those upgrades right now,” said Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Woonsocket), the prime sponsor of the bill. “I understand it’s important to decrease the pollutants in the water and I also understand that eventually, this must happen. But we can’t possibly move forward with this project at this time and consider ourselves fiscally responsible leaders.”
Owned by the city and operated by Veolia Water North America, the wastewater plant treats about 16 million gallons of sewage each day. DEM gave Woonsocket until 2013 to begin driving nitrate and ammonia numbers down in order to meet environmental standards. Upstream on the Blackstone River, the Upper Blackstone Pollution Abatement District is fighting the Environmental Protection Agency against similar upgrades. Baldelli Hunt said it would be in the city’s best interest to wait until the Upper Blackstone Pollution Abatement District’s appeal against the EPA is settled before pushing forward with the Woonsocket project.
Reps. Jon D. Brien (D-Woonsocket) and Robert D. Phillips (D-Woonsocket), who co-sponsored the legislation, said an increase in sewer rates to help finance the project would further burdenWoonsocket residents, who may also have to deal with a supplemental tax increase as the city attempts to balance its books after news the Woonsocket Education Department is facing a $10 million deficit.
“The city is looking at $35 million in improvements for this,” Brien said. “I think DEM can take into consideration that there are special circumstances at play here. These are clearly unprecedented times, especially for the troubled city of Woonsocket.”
Phillips said he felt he owed it to his constituents to support this bill so the city can focus on handling its deficit.
“We need to deal with immediate financial issues,” Phillips said. “Right now, this is an immediate financial issue because DEM has made it one. But no one foresaw the Education Department’s deficit. We’re already going to need some relief for the taxpayers with a possible supplemental bill coming down the line.”
If passed, the bill would not only halt the project, but eliminate the need for the city to implement a sewer hike as originally proposed.