PORTSMOUTH — The state is still insisting the Town of Portsmouth install sewers in Island Park and Portsmouth Park, but the town remains steadfast in its conviction that none are needed.
The Town Council received an update on the sewer issue Monday night on a request by council member David Gleason. More than three years ago, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) issued a notice of violation (NOV) to the town, claiming it was discharging contaminated storm water from the two neighborhoods into local waters. DEM also ordered the town to install sewers to remedy the situation.
According to Town Planner Gary Crosby, last September the town’s environmental attorney, Gerald Petros, filed a motion with a state hearing officer for a summary judgement on the matter and made his arguments along with DEM officials at a state hearing March 3.
Mr. Petros is “making the argument that DEM … does not have the authority” to compel the town to install sewers, Mr. Crosby said, adding that the “NOV fails as a matter of law.”
The town is waiting for the state hearing officer to decide whether there should be a “full-blown” hearing which would take place anywhere from May to July, Mr. Crosby said.
Resident Philip Driscoll, who attended the March 3 hearing, said he agreed with Mr. Petros’ comments that “sewage is a DEM responsibility,” not a town responsibility.
“DEM is trying to rope us in,” said Mr. Driscoll.
He also referred to the town’s municipally funded revolving loan program that’s the core of the town’s Wastewater Management Plan. The program is designed to help residents pay for upgrades to their septic systems to bring them in line with minimum state standards.
“Taxpayers have spent about $2 million on septic so far,” said Mr. Driscoll.
He pointed to a case at the Hummocks, in which an “85-year-old woman is spending over $25,000 on her property to put this monstrosity in,” even though there’s no evidence that nearby waters are polluted, he said.
Larry Fitzmorris of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens agreed, saying DEM’s order was poorly written “and did not contain data on what storm drain had any pollution coming out of it.”
Mr. Fitzmorris, who also attended the March 3 hearing, noted that Mr. Petros estimated it would cost the town $60 million to build sewers — a substantial financial risk to taxpayers, he said.
He also criticized the private nature of the talks between town officials and DEM, saying taxpayers deserve to know what’s going on. Three different town councils have held meetings over DEM’s notice in executive session “and people in Island Park, Portsmouth Park have no idea what’s going on,” said Mr. Fitzmorris. He added there’s anecdotal evidence “that people have moved out of their homes” because of the septic issue.
Mr. Fitzmorris called on the council to take a public position in opposition to the sewers. “We’ve waited far too long. It’s time to bring this matter to an end,” he said. “We have a strong legal position as far as I can see.”
Mr. Gleason said he was “totally against pursuing any type of sewers in town” and that town officials have been “way too quiet” on the subject.
Council member Elizabeth Pedro said she was surprised by a March 12 letter from DEM Director Janet Coit, who requested a meeting in executive session with the council to discuss a potential “settlement” over the NOV. (The council agreed to tentatively schedule the session with DEM at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1.)
“I’m also in the dark about this,” said Ms. Pedro. “I think the public wants to know, too.”
Council President James Seveney said he and council member Keith Hamilton met recently with DEM but no settlement was discussed. Rather, the meeting focused on DEM’s letters notifying residents whether their septic plans have been accepted.
Noting that DEM tends “not to be tactful,” Mr. Hamilton said the town wants to review the letters in advance so that homeowners aren’t scared into thinking they have no other options.
Mr. Gleason responded by saying “there should be more disclosure” of such meetings to the full council.
Wastewater manager job
The council also discussed the status of hiring a full-time manager to oversee its Wastewater Management Plan, which impacts all homeowners. Mr. Crosby said the town has advertised for the position twice but has received only four respondents.
“We’re supposed to have five,” he said, adding that the town will re-advertise the job.
Mr. Gleason suggested that the job be combined with a town engineer position, which the town lacks. Mr. Seveney, however, said he wouldn’t consider any new positions until budget deliberations begin.
Town Administrator John Klimm agreed that any change in the job description should wait at least another two weeks so the council can see the budget.
Mr. Driscoll said in Tiverton, the wastewater manager spends only 20 percent of his time on wastewater disposal. “You don’t need a full-time position,” he said, adding that he’s not convinced that the town’s wastewater plan will even make a difference.
“I’ve never read any document that pointed out whether any of these wastewater management districts reduce pollution,” he said.