In the waning days of the legislative session, can one be forgiven for suspecting that Assembly members don’t give a, well how about a quart of sewage solids about the municipal governments they represent? Sewage stories from Woonsocket and Warwick lead one to suspect otherwise.
Woonsocket first. Woonsocket is currently under a DEM order to drive nutrient pollution down beginning in 2013. Nutrient pollution, in the form of nitrates and ammonia, acts as fertilizer for algae blooms that use up oxygen in the water, killing the fish that aren’t driven away. The estimated cost of these improvements is around $35 million. The system serves Woonsocket, but also some customers in neighboring towns, on either side of the border with Massachusetts. The estimate is that this will add a couple of hundred dollars to annual sewer bills.
Woonsocket’s now-infamous House delegation, Jon Brien, Robert Phillips, and Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, tried to get the DEM requirement killed during the last legislative session. Unfortunately, DEM is only enforcing a federal EPA requirement, so it’s more complicated than just yelling, “stop.”
Complicating the issue, upstream from Woonsocket, the sewage authority over the line in Massachusetts is suing the EPA over the same rules. The dodge currently preferred by the city of Woonsocket and their House delegation is that Rhode Island wait for the outcome of that suit. Though it might seem to make sense to wait for the suit to settle, similar suits around the country have failed. Besides, clean water is — to most people — a good thing. Might the delegation have proposed helping Woonsocket pay for the sewage treatment upgrades?
Move now to Warwick. The Assembly repealed a law to mandate that homeowners along the new sewer routes hook their houses up to those sewers. A typical hookup costs $1500-2000, and annual sewer bills are around $450. The mandate is/was part of the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan, a plan to clean Greenwich Bay, once home to a thriving shellfish fishery, and now mostly closed to digging clams.
Governor Chafee vetoed the bill and the Assembly overrode his veto. Another victory for low sewer bills. Except that the finances of the Warwick Sewer Authority have budgeted in a certain number of hookups per year. This is part of how they borrowed the money to fund the expansion in the first place, and how they make their budget each year. Without those new hookups, the people already connected to the sewer will see their rates rise, both according to the financial statements, and to Janine Burke, the Warwick Sewer Authority director, who I spoke to about it.
Alternatively, the Authority has the legal authorization to charge a fee — a “connect-capable” fee of around $200 per year — to the houses along its route that aren’t hooked up. To date it has chosen not to do so (which puts it out of compliance with the Greenwich Bay plan), but it can revisit the issue. At any rate, overriding that veto in order to keep sewer costs down seems like it may be a losing strategy.
What both of these stories say is that the state is interested in seeing cleaner water. The Assembly gave no orders that DEM repudiate the EPA requirements. No one will go on record wanting dirty water and dead fish. They just don’t want to pay for the cleanup.
To a small extent, you have to give the Woonsocket gang of three a little credit for consistency. They don’t think cleaner water is worth spending any money on, and so reject both the money and the requirements, even if they offer lip service to clean water. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told the Woonsocket Patch:
“I understand it’s important to decrease the pollutants in the water and I also understand that eventually, this must happen. But we can’t possibly move forward with this project at this time and consider ourselves fiscally responsible leaders.”
So their position is clean water, later. The rest of the Assembly seems ok with the idea of clean water now, so long as someone else pays for it. Neither perspective seems worth endorsing to me.
What about the perspective that clean water now is a good thing worth paying for? It’s a good thing for Woonsocket, but it’s also a good thing for everyone downstream, which means Lincoln, Cumberland, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Providence, and everyone on Narragansett Bay. Untreated sewage currently flows into the water from the Warwick shore, but East Greenwich benefits from a cleaner Greenwich Bay, too. Given all that, why should the state insist that all sewage problems be solved locally? Yes, Woonsocket residents pay higher property taxes proportional to their ability than nearly any other city or town in the state. Sewer customers in Providence and Pawtucket have seen their rates climb dramatically in recent years for the same reasons. Does the state have nothing to offer besides words? How about money?
Let’s end with a riddle. In 2010, our state’s economy, measured by the gross state product, was about $49.2 billion dollars. Corrected for inflation, this is larger than it has ever been in our little state’s history, despite our monumental unemployment rate. There are those who say that our economic growth is because of the dramatic drop in tax revenue over the past decades. That’s silly because growth has slowed or stalled as taxes have been cut. But slow growth or fast, the economy now is bigger than ever.
So remember, when you hear about how we can no longer afford clean water or good education or comfortable retirements — let alone find enough jobs for everyone — that our state is collectively richer now than it has ever been before. Ever. Feel better now?