Burt Hoffman, Henry Rosemont, Jr., Dave Wixted, and Ted Wrobel are founding members of the Sewer Rats, a group of citizens who joined together to address the longstanding problem of sewage overflows in Newport and Middletown, RI. They are plaintiffs in NELC’s lawsuits against the two municipalities, filed in the summer of 2008, which seek to bring the overflows to an eventual end and to clean up contaminated storm water.
Why did the Sewer Rats take on this issue?
Ted: Sewage overflows have been a problem here for a long time. King’s Beach – the only beach in downtown Newport – has been closed since the 1990s due to high bacteria levels.
Dave: And it goes back farther than that. Many decades ago, children were told to swim near the middle of the beach, not by Middletown’s Atlantic Beach Club or by Newport’s Cliff Walk, because of the sewage flowing down from each side.
Why do Newport and Middletown have overflows?
Henry: It’s both a sewage problem and a storm water problem. Newport has never fully separated its sewage drains from its storm water drains, so when we get our typical heavy rain or snow, storm water overwhelms the already struggling sewage system.
Dave: Middletown contributes to the problem by pumping its sewage to Newport, and by discharging its own sewage overflows to a storm water pond that empties onto the beach. And separate storm water flows from both towns carry high bacteria levels to our beaches.
Burt: Many of these problems arise because of “deferred maintenance” – those in charge don’t want to raise taxes to pay for properly maintaining the system, so they leave it for next year, when it will cost more. Five years ago, for example, one of the main pipes collecting and pumping sewage to the Newport sewage treatment plant smelled awful. When I brought this up to the Newport City Council, they told me there is something wrong with my nose. This year the pipe finally broke, and it’s going to take a year and at least $15 million to fix it.
Why did you finally decide to file these Clean Water Act lawsuits?
Burt: Other attempts at persuasion just didn’t work. Three years ago we championed a city-wide ballot measure, overwhelmingly approved by the residents of Newport, that prevented the city from accepting new sewage connections until it went ninety days without an overflow. But once the city reached that modest milestone, it went back to business as usual.
Ted: Something had to be done to make Newport and Middletown address these problems seriously, and the municipal governments weren’t going to do it themselves. To put it bluntly, we felt it was time to stop putting poop into the water.