PORTSMOUTH — The nature of recent talks between the town and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) over the town’s septic issues in Island Park and Portsmouth Park was a source of contention at Monday’s Town Council meeting.
More than three years ago, DEM issued a notice of violation (NOV) to the town, claiming it was discharging contaminated storm water from the two neighborhoods — Island Park and Portsmouth Park — into local waters. DEM also ordered the town to install sewers to remedy the situation.
After meeting with members of DEM in executive session April 1, however, the council announced “there’s been some movement on (DEM’s) part … that sewers are not a solution for the Town of Portsmouth,” Town Council President James Seveney said Monday night. “I think that’s a pretty significant move forward.”
Town Planner Gary Crosby is now working to revise the town’s Wastewater Management Plan and wastewater ordinance to include language that would satisfy DEM that the town is taking steps to enforce onsite solutions to the septic issue.
Resident Larry Fitzmorris said the agreement with DEM sounded like “very good news” but asked about the nature of the negotiations. “What are we changing in the Wastewater Management Plan?” he asked.
Mr. Seveney said it’s too soon to say what the town planner and DEM will agree upon, but any changes will be discussed at a public forum before they’re adopted.
“We’re amending an ordinance which requires a public hearing and notification in the newspaper,” added Mr. Crosby, noting that an opportunity for public comment is required.
Another resident, Phillip Driscoll, said he while he was encouraged to hear that DEM may drop the demand for sewers, he still had concerns.
“I have to really question whether the Wastewater Management District really makes a difference,” said Mr. Driscoll, pointing out that the septic system repairs or replacements are being undertaken by residents at a considerable expense. “I’ve never found any evidence of other communities putting in a wastewater management plan and improving the environment.”
Talks with DEM questioned
Two council members took issue with the way the town’s discussions with DEM have progressed.
Council member David Gleason objected to a meeting Mr. Seveney and council member Keith Hamilton had with DEM officials Feb. 11. (Mr. Seveney and Mr. Hamilton have said that meeting focused only on language used in DEM’s letters notifying residents whether their septic plans have been accepted.)
“My take on this is that DEM should be corresponding with (Town Administrator John) Klimm as our point of contact,” said Mr. Gleason, who said he wanted to be “part of that conversation” whenever council members discuss such matters of importance with DEM. “It’s a little close to the sword,” Mr. Gleason said.
Mr. Seveney responded by saying elected officials can talk to whomever they please. “What you can’t do is commit either the council or the town to anything,” he said. “If you want to be a part of meetings in the future, that’s fine with me.”
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she hasn’t been able to speak with the town’s environmental attorney, Gerald Petros, even though the council president and Mr. Hamilton have had several conversations with him. “If we can speak to whomever we want … how come I can’t speak with the attorney?” she asked “They’ve been directed not to speak with us.”
Mr. Seveney reiterated that a council member can speak to anyone who’s willing to lend an ear.
Ms. Pedro also asked that the minutes of the April 1 meeting be changed to reflect that she abstained from voting on revising the Wastewater Management Plan and wastewater ordinance. (The minutes had recorded a 6-0 vote, with Ms. Pedro in favor.)
Ms. Pedro said there were “too many unanswered questions” during the executive session for her to cast an informed vote on a matter of such magnitude. The council voted to approve the minutes change.
After the regular business agenda was completed Monday night, the council voted to go into executive session to discuss the wind turbine issue.
The turbine has been idle since June 2012 due to a faulty gear box, and the town has been seeking a solution to the issue ever since.