A small group of Newport, RI residents, self-dubbed the “Sewer Rats,” spent over a decade monitoring the city’s illegal sewage discharges and urging local officials to protect Rhode Island’s beaches from raw sewage contamination. Because Newport had not fully separated its sewage drains from stormwater drains, it suffered “combined sewer overflows,” in which untreated sewage flooded Newport Harbor during heavy rains. These overflows, and bacterial runoff from a separate stormwater discharge, brought high levels of fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria and repeatedly forced the state of Rhode Island to designate Newport’s beaches as unsafe for swimming for at least 24 hours after heavy rain.

In 2008, NELC sued the city of Newport on behalf of Environment Rhode Island and the Sewer Rats. The litigation spanned three years, with EPA and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management joining plaintiffs’ side in 2010. Armed with EPA’s technical expertise, we negotiated a settlement that required Newport to implement a comprehensive plan to end its sewage overflows. NELC and the citizen plaintiffs also addressed the separate stormwater sewer pollution by securing the City’s agreement to install an ultraviolet disinfection system to reduce the bacterial loadings to nearby swimming beaches.

This lawsuit is a powerful example of how the federal government and citizen plaintiffs can cooperate to achieve remarkable results for public health and the environment.