In Your Neighborhood/Opinion

There is no mistaking the stench of raw sewage

A citizen activist sounded the alarm, alerting regulators and journalists, about the steady stream of raw sewage flowing into the Blackstone River, from a malfunctioning wastewater facility in Woonsocket

Photo by John Berard

The brown streak along the far bank shows the raw sewage entering the Blackstone River. The outfall pipe is at the waterline right below the small concrete platform.

By Johnathan Berard
Posted 3/6/23
The putrid discovery last week of raw sewage pouring into the Blackstone River from a wastewater treatment plant in Woonsocket underscores the important role of citizen activists.
Why didn’t the mayor of Woonsocket take immediate legal action to halt the discharge of raw sewage? What increases are needed in this year’s state budget for DEM to undertake better enforcement actions? How does this discharge of raw sewage into the Blackstone River violate state public health laws? Does it require action by the R.I. Attorney General? What kinds of testing is being done to identify the chemicals, toxins and pollutants that have might been dumped into the Blackstone River as a result of the wastewater plant malfunction? What health tests are being provided by Landmark Medical Center and Thundermist Medical Center to Woonsocket residents to identify potential health hazards?
Frank Carini at ecoRI News recently published an investigative report on the ongoing travails regarding clean up and remediation at 76 Superfund sites in southern New England, including 13 in Rhode Island. What was missing from Carini’s excellent research and reporting was the next step in the public health chain – connecting potential ongoing chronic health conditions afflicting residents and communities living nearby the Superfund sites. For instance, at the Centredale Superfund site in North Providence, teachers working at school adjacent to the site have raised questions about a cluster of cancer cases.
The recent Norfolk Southern train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, and the subsequent burn-off of tank cars carrying vinyl chloride, resulted in toxic pollutants being released into the air and water of surrounding communities, including the probability of dioxin contamination.
When it comes to taking action around environmental concerns, the fights have often been led by citizen activists – from Lois Gibbs in Love Canal, N.Y., to Sharon Lavigne in Cancer Alley in Louisiana.
Men in power often get "too emotional" when they lose control of the dominant narrative, it seems. Last week, as Hayley Buckey was testifying before the Senate Finance Committee hearing to re-confirm Peter Alviti as the director of R.I. Department of Transportation, reading from the police accident report of when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver, R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio interrupted Buckey, shouting at her, rudely slamming his phone on the table.
Joining Buckey at the dinner table could be Abigail Disney, along with Kathy Hughes, who will be in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss America’s inequality crisis, with a screening of their film, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” on Tuesday, March 7. Just don’t serve any fish caught from the Blackstone River or from the Ohio River near East Palestine.

WOONSOCKET – On Wednesday morning, March 1, I took my regular running route toward the Rivers Edge entrance to the Blackstone River Bikeway in Woonsocket. As I ran up Davison Avenue, a horrible stink assaulted my nostrils, nearly physically stopping me in my tracks.

Those of us who live in this city are sadly accustomed to the ubiquitous, noxious odor of the sludge settling and incineration operations of the Woonsocket Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility; the pungent fragrance of human waste in various stages of treatment hangs over the city most days.

I always just run through it, but the smell was much worse than normal on this day. I knew something was wrong. Early in my advocacy career, I toured the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dundalk, Maryland, the largest wastewater treatment facility on the East Coast [and plagued by poor maintenance and operational mismanagement itself].

During my visit, I got to witness first-hand the entire process for treating human waste, from the time untreated sewage enters the plant to the discharge of treated water into the Chesapeake Bay. It was fascinating, but I was glad when my tour came to an end. While the smell of raw sewage lingered in my clothes for only a few washes, the scent memory of it has stuck with me for a decade.

So, there was no doubt in my mind that what I had been smelling as I stepped onto the bike path was untreated sewage. I ran further down the path towards the outfall, hoping against hope that whatever was causing the odor was confined to the tanks of the plant and not waste being dumped into the river.

When it came into view, those hopes were quickly dashed. The glossy black waters of the Blackstone River were riven with a streak of copper-colored discharge from the gurgling pipe on the east bank. Raw sewage. A family of black ducks swam through the effluent.

Documenting the disaster
I took some pictures and video with my phone. When I was done, I called the R.I. Department of Environmental Management [DEM] to report the discharge; I then sent the video along to a few local elected officials.

As a long-time environmental advocate, I know how important citizen activism is in cases like this. Whether because of scarce resources, gaps in knowledge, or willful negligence, local and state government officials have difficulty proactively enforcing environmental laws.

This is best illustrated in our state by DEM’s inability to comprehensively enforce environmental laws because of decades of budget cuts and under-funding. DEM relies heavily on citizen complaints and reporting to identify violators of state pollution regulations. Even then, there is sometimes little they can legally do. Regardless, by the time actions are taken, the damage is usually already done.

This model of citizen activism is not unique to our state. In fact, most federal environmental laws contain a citizen suit provision that allows — and, for the most part, relies on — citizens or groups with standing to either sue polluters or sue the government, to force them to uphold the law.

Polluters almost always have the upper hand, and citizen suits and other enforcement measures — for reasons political, legal, or some combination of the two — are often unsuccessful.

Sometimes we win, though, and when we do, it is because of the work and tenacity of everyday citizens and advocates. The public does not have well-connected lobbyists to fight powerful special interests in the halls of government or the deep pockets to pay for attorneys to regularly take on polluters in courts.

A critical tool
This is why citizen activism and collective action is such a critical tool for advancing legislation and enforcing regulations to protect our natural resources and public health. Citizens must work together to tell their stories and advocate for new laws, while at the same time, serve as watchdogs to make sure that regulated industries are compliant with the laws that already exist – and that the government is enforcing those same laws.

As an advocate and environmental policy professional, I have spent over a decade connecting people to decision-makers and training them to use their voices and share their lived experiences as a means of moving the needle on environmental and public health protections.

Sometimes, this manifests as a written letter to an elected official or testimony at a legislative hearing. Often it is a phone call to DEM or a journalist to report something that just isn’t right. In my case, I knew right away that something was off. As I have said, I could smell it. But, what if I hadn’t reported it? What if I decided to skip my run that day?

DEM’s press release stated that they learned about the discharge from me. That means that the plant operator did not report the release of sewage to the city or to DEM. That is a serious concern, not to mention a violation of the public’s trust and the law.

We all need to keep our eyes and ears (and noses) out when we walk, hike, run, or paddle. We need to support environmental advocacy organizations with our time and, if we can, our money. And we need to be vigilant and hold polluters, elected officials, and government agencies accountable.

Johnathan Berard is an environmental advocate and public policy and communications
professional. He lives with his family in Woonsocket.

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