‘We needed this yesterday’: An emergency contract award raises many questions in Woonsocket

The city had to act fast to repair a major problem at its sewage treatment plant. But officials may need to slow down and look at their own rules.

By: - May 1, 2023 5:15 am

Problems at the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Plant led the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Environmental Management to sue the city. (Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management)

As Woonsocket officials race to repair broken equipment critical to its regional sewage treatment plant, they may be breaking their own protocols around purchasing. 

Rental equipment came in last week. But city officials still haven’t provided the required documentation explaining why they needed to award a $1.7 million emergency contract to buy it without first going out  to bid. 

A missing memo might not seem like a major problem, especially compared with the critical need to operate the sewage plant which incinerates waste for more than 30 cities and towns across the region.

The city’s big-ticket purchase, approved by the City Council April 10, from the same company whose alleged lack of communication and failure to maintain its equipment may have caused repeated sewage leaks into the Blackstone River, is raising eyebrows.

“It doesn’t speak well of how Woonsocket is trying to fix this problem if they’re bypassing both their own requirements and state requirements,” said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island.

Bypassing bidding in emergencies

Woonsocket’s purchasing manual requires any purchase over $5,000 go through a competitive bidding process. But it allows the city to bypass bidding if there is an emergency that “warrants an immediate and serious need for materials, services, or construction that cannot be met through normal procurement methods and that seriously threatens the functioning of the City, the protection of property, the health or safety of any person.”

Woonsocket to spend $2.2 million on wastewater treatment plant

Yet the public works director said last week he had not provided that documentation, nor did he think he needed to, even though two weeks had passed since the City Council voted to pay the $1.7 million to a subsidiary of Synagro Technologies Inc. The payment covers the cost to transport and operate the temporary equipment for the incineration side of the plant for 12 months while repairs are made and new parts brought in for its gravity thickener. Synagro through a different subsidiary already contracts with the city to run the incineration side of the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility. 

The gravity thickener is a crucial part of the incineration, as it condenses and treats wastewater sludge so that it can be safely released into the environment.

The incineration operations are at the heart of a legal complaint filed by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management after repeated sewage dumps into the Blackstone River.

Since the complaint was filed in Providence County Superior Court in March, city officials and the private contractors named in the lawsuit have tried to fix equipment problems tied to the sewage leaks, temporarily scaling back incineration operations – and the money they make from this work – during that time.

DEM required the city to bring in a temporary gravity belt thickener as part of its permit for the plant, according to documents from DEM shared with Rhode Island Current. 

The city had to submit a timeline for acquiring this rental equipment within five days of a March 6 email from DEM. There was no time for a competitive solicitation process, said Steve D’Agostino, the city’s public works director.

“We needed this yesterday,” he said. “We didn’t have time to go through the whole bid process.” 

The Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Plant has an incinerator that processes 105 tons of dried biosolids a day, brought in from 30 cities and towns across the region as well as a few private manufacturers. (Photo by Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management)

Region depends on plant

The incineration arm of the Woonsocket plant processes 105 tons of dried biosolids a day, brought in from 30 cities and towns across the region as well as a few private manufacturers, according to Synagro’s website.

“We’re taking care of the needs of the region,” said D’Agostino.

D’Agostino also said he inquired informally with two other companies that might be able to provide the kind of equipment the city needed, but neither could.

“This is not something we go to Lowe’s for,” he said. “It’s very specialized equipment.”

This is not something we go to Lowe’s for. It’s very specialized equipment.

– Steve D’Agostino, Woonsocket public works director

D’Agostino told the council during the April 10 meeting that Synagro’s 3-meter gravity belt thickener, which can process up to 2,500 pounds of dried sludge per hour according to city documents, was one of few of its size in the country.

D’Agostino, as director of the public works department, is the person responsible for submitting the signed memo to the city that includes an “acknowledgment of the unusual procurement method/arrangement and site acknowledgment,” according to the city purchasing manual.

D’Agostino said he has not written that memo, although he said his request to the council was reviewed by the city solicitor. The solicitor has not returned more than a dozen calls and emails for comment over the last three weeks. 

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt also did not return multiple calls for comment. 

Separately, state law requires a municipal purchasing agent seeking to award an emergency contract without first going to bid to provide “a written determination of the basis for the emergency, and for the selection of the particular contractor.”

Ken Allaire, Woonsocket’s purchasing agent, confirmed on Tuesday he had not produced that document because he was still waiting for the purchase request from the public works department, despite the council’s authorization more than two weeks prior.

Meanwhile, the equipment was scheduled to be set up this week, D’Agostino said. He said he did not submit the purchase order to the purchasing department because he wanted to see the materials first.

“Smart people don’t pay for things unless they see them first,” he said. 

Woonsocket City Hall on Main Street. (Photo by Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

‘Nothing like this has happened before’

Councilman Brian Thompson repeatedly questioned the purchase during the council’s meeting, though he ultimately approved it.

“I was reluctant to support it because of the cost and because it was for Synagro,” Thompson said in a later interview. “The DEM notice is why I voted for it. Otherwise I would have been a straight up ‘no.’”

Thompson acknowledged the decision to award a contract without putting out a bid might have been “a bit overly trusting” but also stressed the emergency nature of the situation.

“There is no standard procedure because nothing like this has happened before,” he said. “The equipment completely failed.”

That’s no excuse for a municipality to flout its own procedural rules, said Common Cause’s Marion.

“The fact that they are doing this without even the bare amount of due diligence required suggests that maybe they didn’t even look at their options,” Marion said. “I don’t think ignorance is an excuse here.”

Marion also pointed out that not following the rules was one the accusations levied by council members against Mayor Baldelli-Hunt when the council voted to oust her from the job last October. Baldelli-Hunt was reelected a month later.

Ignoring purchasing requirements is not just a Woonsocket problem. The city of Providence, which has a much larger staff and an appointed Board of Contract and Supply, also routinely circumvented its own guidelines, according to Shawn Selleck, the former Providence city council clerk.

“There really is no way to hold a municipality accountable for not following its own procurement laws,” Selleck said. “And the people who are supposed to be guarding the henhouse are not knowledgeable enough or not paying attention.”

Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for Synagro, issued an emailed response:

“Synagro will continue to work collaboratively with the City of Woonsocket to ensure this new piece of equipment arrives quickly, runs efficiently, and all operations on-site can continue in a safe, reliable manner.”

The city, Synagro and Jacobs Engineering, the contractor which oversees the main wastewater treatment operations, have until May 15 to respond to the lawsuit.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

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