PROVIDENCE, RI—On April 11, after nearly two years of negotiations among citizen plaintiffs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and the City of Newport, R.I., U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith signed a comprehensive revision to the Clean Water Act consent decree governing the city’s wastewater and stormwater discharges.
“This is the next significant step in longstanding efforts by Newport residents to reclaim their beaches for swimming, fishing, and other public uses,” noted NELC Litigation Director Chuck Caldart, who represented the citizen plaintiffs in the negotiations.
The current litigation grew out of discussions among a group of local citizens calling themselves “The Sewer Rats.” Distressed by decades of sewer overflows, frequent beach closings, and advisories against consumption of local shellfish, the group called on the city to fix its outdated sewage treatment and conveyance system. They also called for an end to overflows from the system, which would routinely send sewage into Newport Harbor during times of heavy rain or snow melt.
When these calls went unheeded, the group contacted both NELC and the non-profit advocacy group Environment Rhode Island.
In 2008, after meetings with the city proved unproductive, NELC attorneys filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Newport on behalf of Environment Rhode Island and four of the “Rats”— Burt Hoffman (now deceased), Henry Rosemont, Jr., Dave Wixted, and Ted Wrobel. At the request of NELC attorneys, the EPA and DEM joined as named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Numerous technical meetings and negotiations followed, culminating in an 84-page judicial consent decree signed as an order of the court in 2011.
Among other requirements, the decree directed Newport to map its extensive sewer and stormwater piping and pumping system, to take a variety of actions to reduce stormwater inflow and groundwater infiltration into the sewage system, and to develop a longterm plan for ending sewer overflows by 2018. The resultant analysis, conducted in cooperation with an advisory committee that included EPA, DEM, and citizen plaintiff Ted Wrobel, determined that the work needed to eliminate all overflows by 2018 would place an extremely heavy burden on Newport’s ratepayers, but that many near-term improvements were possible.
Building on this framework, the revised consent decree requires that a series of upgrades to the wastewater treatment and conveyance system be completed by 2019. These are designed to reduce sewer overflows by more than 90 percent. The revised decree extends the final completion date for other aspects of the overflow reduction project, to allow the city to meet its obligations according to a financially manageable timeline.
The revised decree also requires a focus on the minimization and control of stormwater flows, including the use of “green infrastructure” approaches (such as permeable pavements, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting systems), as a means of reducing stormwater flows to beaches and waterways.
Finally, the citizen plaintiffs inserted provisions in the revised decree to ensure that the interim pollution- reduction benchmarks are met. If they are not, the city will be required to take additional steps to meet them.