To the editor:
In November of 2010 the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM) issued a notice of violation (NOV) charging Portsmouth with polluting the Sakonnet River via town storm water drain pipes. DEM alleges that area septic systems are substandard or failed and are the source of pollution, so the town must install a $60 millions (more likely $100 million) sewer system.
Portsmouth challenged the NOV and recently presented its case before a DEM hearing officer. In essence the Town of Portsmouth does not own any of the systems DEM alleges are the source of contaminated storm water entering the Sakonnet River. DEM is responsible for enforcement of wastewater treatment regulations in Rhode Island, not Portsmouth and DEM lacks authority to impose sewers on the citizens of Portsmouth.
Meanwhile, Mr. Seveney, a “made” member of the Portsmouth good old boy gang that wants sewers in Island Park so developers can rebuild in the likeness of Nantucket, has been consulting with DEM, in private, supposedly, to improve relations, when, suddenly, DEM requests a meeting with the Town Council.
After the resulting executive session on March 24, Council President Seveney, carefully articulated DEM’s strategic retreat without revealing details of Portsmouth concessions necessary for DEM to withdraw enforcement of the badly flawed NOV.
According to Mr. Seveney, DEM accepts the will of the people, when in fact DEM has no regard for the will of the people. Witness a DEM grant award to Portsmouth for preparation of a wastewater facilities plan that stated, “the recommendation of the engineering study must be implemented by the Town of Portsmouth regardless of voter defeat in a referendum.” Clearly, Portsmouth has convinced DEM that the NOV was a complete breach of its authority. Now, with sewers all but “off the table,” Mr. Seveney’s meddling suggests, strongly, that he does not want the prospect of sewers to go away.
Without a legal ruling on DEM’s authority to impose sewers, homeowners and buyers in Portsmouth will consider the financial impact of an expensive repair, upgrade or new installation and the possibility of a subsequent, more expensive, mandatory installation and hookup to sewers. Without a legal verdict, homeowners will postpone needed septic work before they risk the additional cost of sewers, and homebuyers will look elsewhere. The looming financial risk is a powerful disincentive for homeowners to remedy septic problems regardless of threat to public health.
It is time for new leadership on the Town Council. If the town does not follow through with its legal challenge of DEM, Portsmouth and every comparable municipality in Rhode Island is at risk of being bullied into the same expensive legal defense. DEM picked this costly fight and Portsmouth is winning. It is time to finish it; not throw in the towel.