Woonsocket to spend $2.2 million on wastewater treatment plant

Expensive equipment repairs come on the heels of AG, DEM lawsuit

By: - April 11, 2023 3:11 pm

The Woonsocket City Council reluctantly approved the expenditure of $445,000 to fix the gravity thickener at the city’s wastewater treatment plant during its meeting at City Hall Monday, April 10, 2023. The council also approved the expenditure of $101,500 to transport rental equipment from Maryland and pay $136,300 a month for the next year until the permanent gravity thickener is repaired. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Woonsocket officials are reluctantly shelling out nearly $2.2 million over the next year to temporarily rent, and eventually repair, a key piece of equipment at the city-owned sewage plant.

The spending approved by the Woonsocket City Council on Monday comes a month after the city and its private contractors were hit with a lawsuit by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for dumping partially untreated sewage from the plant into the Blackstone River. 

“No one wants to spend this kind of money, but it has to be done,” said Council President Christopher Beauchamp. 

Beauchamp added that the spending signified a proactive, versus reactive, approach to addressing problems at the sewage plant, which dumped partially untreated sewage into the Blackstone River on at least three separate occasions over the last year.

Since the complaint in Providence County Superior Court was filed, the city and the two private companies hired to run operations and incinerate the plant have been working to clean up their act.

No one wants to spend this kind of money, but it has to be done.

– Woonsocket City Council President Christopher Beauchamp

Among those steps: fixing the gravity thickener used to separate out solid waste. The complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court details problems with the equipment as well as operational miscommunications between Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., the company that runs the main sewage plant operations, and Synagro Woonsocket, LLC, which was hired specifically for incineration.

The 50-year-old equipment is essentially not usable without major repairs, according to Steve D’Agostino, city public works director. But fixing it is a lengthy – and expensive – process.

The council on Monday agreed to spend $445,000 for new “internal mechanism components” for its gravity thickener. The contract with South Carolina-based Kusters Water was the most expensive of three bids submitted to the city, but recommended by the city’s consultant engineering company because it is a “more robust unit with more options for operations,” according to city documents. The council’s signoff starts a nine-month wait time to actually get the new parts into the city. The purchase also does not include the cost of installation, according to D’Agostino.

In the meantime, the city is planning to rent a portable gravity belt thickener from Synagro to keep its wastewater treatment plant operational. The agreement approved under a separate, unanimous vote comes with a $101,500 cost to transport the equipment from Maryland. There’s also a $136,300 monthly cost for operations, including labor, which D’Agostino thinks the city will have to pay for a year until the new, permanent equipment is shipped in and installed.

Councilman Brian Thompson said he was reluctant to support the measure due to the $60,000 monthly labor cost, which pays for two people to operate the portable equipment 24/7.

But D’Agostino countered that the equipment, which requires constant surveillance, is being mandated by DEM.

“This is not debatable,” D’Agostino replied. 

The spending on rental equipment and permanent parts both comes from the city’s wastewater improvement fund, which is where the city collects money from the four municipalities – Woonsocket, Smithfield, Blackstone and Bellingham, Mass. – that use the regional plant. The city expects to bring in $8.7 million through its wastewater fund in fiscal 2023, according to its approved budget. 

The lawsuit filed against the city and its contractors comes with up to $35,000 a day in fines for violating state environmental laws, though Attorney General Peter Neronha said previously he was more focused on fixing the problems than making the city pay, given its existing financial problems. The city and contractors have until May 15 to respond to the complaint. As of Tuesday, no responses had been filed, according to online court records. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.