AG, DEM file lawsuit to stop sewage discharge into Blackstone River

Violations led to temporary bans on recreational use of the river between Woonsocket and Pawtucket

By: - March 16, 2023 4:00 am

No discoloration from discharge appears above the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Plant outfall pipe in this photograph taken Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management)

Three strikes, you’re out.

After leaking partially untreated sewage into the Blackstone River at least three times in the last year, the owners and operators of the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility are being sued.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Terrence Gray Wednesday announced the dual agency lawsuit against the city of Woonsocket, which owns the regional sewage plant, and the two private companies hired to oversee operations: Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., and Synagro Woonsocket, LLC.

The complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court comes after a pattern in which the plant dumped partially untreated sewage into the Blackstone River, violating federal and state environmental laws and temporarily preventing Rhode Islanders from recreational activities like swimming and fishing due to health concerns. 

A section of the Blackstone River between Woonsocket and Pawtucket was closed for recreational use for two weeks in March after the R.I. Department of Environmental Management found partially untreated sewage from the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment facility had been dumped into the river. / COURTESY RI DEPARTMENT of ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT

“It has become plain to me that if this office and DEM do not take this action together, the problem will not be solved,” Neronha said during a press conference Wednesday at the Office of the Attorney General in Providence.

 “No one can say DEM has not worked to improve the situation, and yet, the situation has not improved.”

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Terrence Gray, seated, listens as Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks during a press conference to announce the lawsuit on Wednesday afternoon in Providence. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Complaint details long list of violations

The 31-page complaint details dozens of notices and inspections in which state environmental officials attempted to work with plant operators in response to elevated bacteria levels in the river, permit violations and odor complaints from the public. 

“It’s frustrating,” Gray said of his agency’s consistent investigations and outreach. “Enough is enough.”

Environmental advocates praised Neronha and Gray for putting teeth behind state permitting and environmental laws.

“A permit without the threat of enforcement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” said Save the Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone.

While Rhode Island’s environmental laws are some of the strongest in the country, they are only as meaningful when they are enforced, said Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director for Clean Water Action.

Others have criticized the state for not bringing penalties against the treatment plant sooner. In response, Neronha said he wanted to give the companies a chance to fix their mistakes.

“You don’t bring action the first time there’s a problem,” Neronha said. “But this happened again and again.”

Putting pressure on city leaders and privatized facilities

The alleged violations of the state’s Clean Water and Freshwater Wetlands acts come with costly penalties: $25,000 and $10,000 a day, respectively. However, Neronha said the goal of the lawsuit is not to collect these charges, at least not from the taxpayers of Woonsocket which “has its own problems,” he said.

Rather, Neronha views the lawsuit as a tool to pressure the city and its private contractors to fix the problems causing recurring sewage leaks into the river. That first requires figuring out the source of the problem.

Environmental consultants hired by the city of Woonsocket last year issued a memo in which they blamed the leaks on lack of coordination and communication between Jacobs and Synagro, including over maintenance and repair of the “gravity thickener” equipment used to separate out solid waste, according to the complaint. The memo included recommendations on how to prevent the problem from happening again.

But on March 1, someone jogging along the Blackstone River Bikeway spotted – and smelled – untreated sewage in the river, and tweeted about it.

 A subsequent DEM investigation confirmed elevated levels of bacteria, forcing another temporary ban on fishing, swimming and other recreational use of the river between Woonsocket and Pawtucket. The ban, which was issued March 2, was scheduled to be lifted Wednesday, Gray said.

Synagro in an emailed response Wednesday night said it was “committed to continuing this important, necessary service that’s critical to the state while meeting state and federal environmental standards.” The company said it planned to review the lawsuit once received.

George Sbily, a spokesman for Jacobs, referred all questions about the lawsuit to the city of Woonsocket, which did not return calls and emails on Wednesday. 

The Woonsocket wastewater treatment plant treats an average of 10 million gallons of wastewater per day, serving more than 50,000 people in Woonsocket and North Smithfield, Rhode Island, as well as Bellingham and Blackstone, Massachusetts, according to DEM. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is a reporter covering State House politics along with energy and environmental issues for Rhode Island Current.