Sewers are the new schools
Content warning: I live in Island Park. Some readers feel that my regular posts are biased. I just want everyone to know that when I talk about this issue, they really ARE.
In a 90-minute Town Hall meeting tonight, the Portsmouth Town Council, and about 20 citizens, heard the final report from wastewater consultants Woodard & Curran and grilled representatives from RI DEM. While nothing was decided, the Council voiced considerable skepticism at the assertions from both the consultants and the State that sewering the North end of town was the only viable solution. The question returned repeatedly to the data.
"We're acting on guesses," said Council President Dennis Canario. "Can you say with complete certainty that sewers are the only way to solve the problem?" The acronym-rich alternative is Individual Sewage Disposal Systems (ISDS) commonly, septic systems, watched over by a Wastewater Management District (WMD).
The main focus of discussion was the areas around Portsmouth Park and Island Park. At issue is DEM testing data that shows offshore water quality within acceptable limits. However, testing at storm drain outflows revealed fecal coliform counts an order of magnitude high. To the consultants from Woodard & Curran, that led inevitably to sewers.
"You can't tell whether it's one house or ten," said Mike Schrader of W&C. You could fix system after system, until you got to what he called "the last house," before knowing you really had solved the problem. And even then, he noted, you could have required homeowners to spend $25-30K on individual septic systems, only to end up needing sewers in the end. "Do they want to take the roulette chance?"
"But what could take us off the path of continuous improvement?" Jim Seveney wanted to know. "That's something all voters will ask, especially those who will never see a hookup at their house."
Jay Manning from RI DEM responded. "You are not changing the volume of what's going into the groundwater." Even the best septic systems are still dependent on the underlying soils. So while individual septic systems could reduce fecal coliform counts at the outflows, they might not solve the problem.
And there's the nut of the issue. The town council could require the citizens of the North end of Portsmouth, collectively, to spend in excess of $20M on individual septic systems, with no guarantee that the state wouldn't walk the shore off Park Avenue and find excessive bacteria in the outflow.
As Angelo Liberti of DEM said, "To support shellfishing, [the EPA] need[s] both [offshore] quality and no outfall. If you replace 60% of the systems with sand filters, if you spend that money and fixed those systems, would the numbers come up clean?"
Councilor Katzman raised a fairly forseeable hypothetical. Suppose the Town went to a bond issue on sewers and the voters rejected it. Would the DEM accept a WMD, knowing that they felt it an unacceptable solution.
"We've never run into that situation," said Liberti. "We would be in a very difficult position."
Well guess what, Angelo. We're in it, and up to our noses. The chattering zombies of the PCC were there tonight to voice their opposition to sewers, and you can just imagine the hellstorm of spontaneous, unprompted taxpayer rage they'll unleash should the Council dare to put a bond issue on the ballot. If the rhetoric around sewers is sounding vaguely familiar (let's see...a group of people feeling that they shouldn't pay for a public good that only part of the community uses) then you'll be happy to know that you're not alone, and the Citizens Against Virtually Everything got there first.
The PCC trotted out Liz Pietro to get up at the mike and recite the list of businesses on West Main Road, as a warning to those who would sewer Island Park. No, I mean it. Seriously. That's literally what she did. She started at Oliphant and would still be going if Canario hadn't cut her off. As if McDonald's (West Main elevation, about 170) is going to replace Flo's at 6 feet above Mean High Tide. I evacuated during Bob and my mother lived through '38 in the Park. Don't pretend that the risk management team at any corporate HQ is going to roll those dice.
Want my bet? They're going to run her, and Gene Love, next fall. This whole "fix the town sound system" is a wonderful opportunity to provide face time for Gene "13th in a field of 15" Love. And tonight was a nice low-stress way to give Liz some Council podium time.
I have to admit, her riff did have a kind of nostalgic 1950's beat coffeehouse thing happening. You're sipping espresso in a dimly lit room, she takes the stage — haloed by a pinspot and wearing a raspberry beret — and announces her poem, "Total Development Potential." She then begins reading, with dreadful earnestness: "McDonalds. Benny's. Shop-n-wash. The Dollar Store. GNC." She tilts down her shades, looks significantly around the room. "Rent-a-Center. Stop N Shop." (pause for finger snaps) "Kentucky Fried Chicken...."
Meeting was continued to Thursday April 26 at 6:30.