Attorney General Neronha, DEM Director Gray file lawsuit to stop sewage discharge into Blackstone River
Complaint alleges violations of R.I. environmental laws stemming from multiple instances of partially treated sewage entering Blackstone River within the past 12 months
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Terry Gray announced today they have filed a civil complaint in Providence County Superior Court against the City of Woonsocket, Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., and Synagro Woonsocket, LLC, alleging violations of Rhode Island’s environmental laws, stemming from their operation of the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility in such a way that partially treated sewage has been intermittently discharged into the Blackstone River.
As detailed in the complaint, the parties are alleged to have violated the Rhode Island Clean Water Act, the State Freshwater Wetlands Act, the state’s Environmental Rights Act, and the common law of public nuisance as a result of the discharges and failure to meet the conditions of the facility’s discharge permit.
As recently as March 1, 2023, the DEM announced that partially treated sewage had been discharged by the wastewater treatment facility. More than one week later, DEM announced that the problems at the facility had not been resolved. These recent discharges follow similar occurrences in March and June of 2022.
“The discharge of partially treated sewage into the Blackstone River – one of Rhode Island’s treasured natural resources – has gone on long enough. The City, Jacobs, and Synagro have been put on notice by DEM multiple times and have been given ample opportunity to fix this problem. And yet the problem remains unsolved. Accordingly, it has become plain to me that if we do not take the action we are taking today, the Blackstone River and the people of Rhode Island will continue to suffer,” said Attorney General Neronha. “I am extraordinarily grateful to Director Gray and the DEM staff, as they have provided the technical expertise and assistance without which this lawsuit would not be possible. I also remain grateful for our strong partnership as we continue to advocate for and protect Rhode Island’s natural resources and the environment.”
As alleged in the complaint, DEM has sent the City of Woonsocket, as the owner and holder of the facility’s discharge permit, several letters of non-compliance for failure to comply with the conditions of the permit as a result of the discharges. The facility’s discharge permit has been granted under the Rhode Island Clean Water Act to discharge treated wastewater into the Blackstone. Ultimately, the permit requires that all wastewater generated by the facility be fully treated before being discharged into the Blackstone River.
“DEM staff have inspected this facility 36 times between February of 2022 and today, directed the City and its operators to install temporary solids-removal equipment improvements to bring the plant into compliance until permanent repairs can be made, and were preparing to bring a notice of violation (NOV) to hold the operators accountable for the failures,” said DEM Director Terry Gray. “We look forward to working with the Attorney General in one unified enforcement action to force the operators to resolve the problems and ensure that that the Blackstone River – which through the efforts of thousands of volunteers has had one of the strongest turnarounds of any American river – remains a clean and much-valued recreational resource.”
Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., is an American international engineering firm contracted by the City of Woonsocket to operate and maintain the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility. Synagro Woonsocket, LLC is contracted with the City of Woonsocket to operate and maintain the incineration part of the facility.
The Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility serves the city of Woonsocket, treating sewage from that city as well as from North Smithfield, and Bellingham and Blackstone, Mass., discharging, when fully operational, treated sewage into the Blackstone River.
Support for today’s action
“Save The Bay applauds Attorney General Neronha and DEM Director Gray for using their powers to investigate, and stop, the discharge of sewage into the Blackstone River,” said Jonathan Stone, Executive Director of Save The Bay. “The ongoing discharge violates the law and is an insult to all Rhode Islanders, particularly those who live near the ongoing stench, and others who use the Blackstone River and care about Narragansett Bay. Those that violate environmental laws must be held accountable. Significant penalties are critical for encouraging compliance and deterring violations. Sludge management is a complicated issue for the region, but dumping sewage into the river is not the solution. We fully support this action by the Attorney General, the DEM, and their teams.”
“Clearly, action needed to be taken here, and we applaud the Attorney General and DEM for this enforcement action," said Jed Thorp, R.I. State Director for Clean Water Action. “We have strong environmental rules in Rhode Island, but those rules are only as effective as our ability and willingness to enforce them.”
“RIDEM and RI Attorney General Peter Neronha are absolutely making the right call on this issue. Sewage discharge has no place in the beautiful Blackstone River, and it’s time the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility is held responsible. Failure to stop this ongoing pollution threatens the environment and public health in communities surrounding the river,” said Darrèll Brown, Vice President of Rhode Island Conservation Law Foundation.
“I am grateful to DEM Director Terry Gray and Attorney General Neronha for taking action to stop the degradation of our natural and recreational resource the Blackstone River. The illegal discharges of solid waste into the Blackstone is a slap in the face to all the community volunteers that have spent the last 30 plus years restoring our river back to a recreational gem,” said John Marsland, President and founder, Blackstone River Watershed Council/Friends of the Blackstone.
“Advocates have fought for decades to improve what was once called “the hardest working river in America” to be an asset as a recreational opportunity for the numerous communities and tribes in our region and violations such as those in Woonsocket impact that reputation,” says Stefanie Covino from the Blackstone Watershed Collaborative, an umbrella organization of over 100 partners. “We support this enforcement action to demonstrate how critical the Blackstone River is not only critical for the health of Narragansett Bay’s tourism, fishing, and other industries, but also for the communities along the river, which are some of the most underserved in our region. This is an environmental justice issue, as well as an economic, ecological, and health issue. As our populations expand and climate change causes a rise in extreme rain events, our reliance on facilities like Woonsocket will simply be expanding and we need to get this right.”
The Blackstone River
The Blackstone River has played an important role in Rhode Island’s history. The river served as the birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution, catalyzing construction of water-powered mills and settlements all along the Blackstone, and earning the river the nickname, “America’s hardest working river.” This growth came at an environmental cost, however, in the form of heavy discharges by those mills of industrial waste into the river. By 1971, Audubon Magazine described the Blackstone as “one of America’s most polluted rivers.” In 1990, the EPA designated the Blackstone as “the most polluted river in the country with respect to toxic sediments.”
Recent efforts, including the Clean Water Act, have improved the health of the river, and in July of 2021, the National Parks Service established the river as part of the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park. The river is now home to more than 20 species of fish, as well as beavers, otters, snapping turtles, and a variety of birds, according to the National Parks Service.
Environmental action under Attorney General Neronha
Enforcement of Rhode Island’s environmental protection laws has been a priority of Attorney General Neronha. Today’s action follows earlier efforts, including: imposing the largest penalty ever assessed for violations of the Clean Air Act on SIMS Metal Management in Johnston; questioning the construction of an untested waste burning facility in West Warwick; reaching settlements worth nearly $20 million dollars with major gas companies for chemical contamination; successfully challenging in the Rhode Island Supreme Court the unlawful expansion of a marina on Block Island; and, most recently, charging the Route 6-10 construction firm for allegedly illegally dumping thousands of tons of contaminated fill in violation of state environmental laws, among others.