Fiscal Crisis: Reps Push To Halt Wastewater Upgrades

The DEM-required upgrades would require an increase in sewer assessments at the same time residents may also have to foot the bill for the school department's $10 million deficit.

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. 

Dagny Taggart March 30, 2012 at 02:49 PM
Thank you Lisa Baldelli-Hunt for being the voice of reason at a time when we need it the most! Sharon Cross
Doctor March 30, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Fully agree with you Sharon. Great job Lisa.
Govstench March 30, 2012 at 07:49 PM
It's time to pull the plug on the DEM......this is just another hack state agency going around the state flexing their muscles and driving municipal government nuts. They are doing a tune in East Providence as well. Enough is enough already.
la_mouffette March 31, 2012 at 04:42 AM
Absolutely. Three cheers for our representatives! I want the Blackstone to be as healthy as possible, but we just can not afford this right now.
la_mouffette March 31, 2012 at 04:44 AM
I wouldn't want to see a state with no environmental management dept, Gov...especially in RI, where we have so many toxic sites from the remains of the Industrial Rev. Env. management helps keep us safer and healthier. We just need one that can take our ability to respond to their requests into consideration!
Govstench April 01, 2012 at 02:40 PM
To la_mouffette - if the DEM limted its activities to what was originally legislated, but it hasn't. Like any government agency, it continues to expand into areas that will only hurt economic development. This state agency burns up over $100 million in tax dollars each year - can you afford that? Is the price worth it? Maybe not totally eliminate it but cut it back to affordable levels.
la_mouffette April 02, 2012 at 02:58 AM
It's only that last part I was concerned about, Gov-- Curbing it, yes! I just think eliminating it *completely* would be a bad idea. I think it has an important part of checks and balances re: the public good. We MUST foster business, but if we do that with NO environmental safety oversight at all, we'll become...yeesh. China. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/china-news/birth-defects-in-china-jump-70-percent-in-15-years-62399.html
jde April 02, 2012 at 01:45 PM
Is this really something that needs a bill in the legislature to be accomplished? Can't DEM just sit down with reps from the Governor's office and the City to straighten this out? The entire legislature needs to concern itself with the water treatment plant in Woonsocket? Seems like a waste of the legislature's time.
barry schiller April 02, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Everyone wants DEM curbed until their neighborhood is affected by stench (Johnston) or mercury spills (Pawtucket) sewage washing up (Bay communities, shellfishermen) toxics from utilities (Tiverton) gasoline leaks into wells (Burrillville) and such. Then they want DEM to protect them! And we should all appreciate DEM's state parks, beaches, management areas, bike paths that contribute to local recreation and our tourism industry. And we should all aprreciate DEM support of local agriculture, oe of the few growing industries in RI. So can we afford not to have a strong DEM?? That said, a reasonable approach to wastewater is indeed needed, not just in Woonsocket, but in the Narragansett Bay Commission district too where ratepayer rates have almost quadrupled in a decade.


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