Public Health & Recreation

Sakonnet Point Club Denies Pollution Accusations

Three locations in Little Compton’s Sakonnet Harbor were tested weekly in 2019 from March through August. (PEER)

LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — The Sakonnet Point Club denies speculation that it’s the source of sewage in Sakonnet Harbor.

“The Sakonnet Point Club has been and continues to be in full compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations,” club president Scott Morrison said. “Our permits include extensive monitoring and reporting obligations.”

An Oct. 27 complaint by Maryland-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate enforcement action against the waterfront club or other entities that may be polluting the harbor.

Morrison said the accusation against the Sakonnet Point Club lacks merit.

“The allegations contained in PEER’s complaint to the EPA have been investigated multiple times by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and have been found to be baseless,” he said.

The EPA office in Boston is aware of PEER’s claims that water quality in Sakonnet Harbor has been compromised and is working with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to determine if any action is necessary.

“EPA takes allegations such as this seriously,” EPA New England regional office spokesperson Dave Deegan said.

DEM contends that six months of sampling data from 2019 provided by PEER wasn’t conclusive. The state agency said that the presence of the bacteria enterococci could have come from animals.

“Despite complaints made to DEM and the Rhode Island Department of Health about alleged illicit discharges of sewage from the Sakonnet Point Club to Sakonnet Harbor, the data provided to DEM did not show a violation of water quality criteria,” DEM spokesperson Michael Healey said. “To date, DEM and the Department of Health have found no evidence of sewage discharges into this waterbody.”

Healey noted the the Sakonnet Point Club makes discharges into the harbor from a reverse osmosis treatment system that removes salt from the club’s drinking water wells.

“And there has been no evidence of sewage in this discharge,” he said.

In 2009, the Sakonnet Point Club was assessed a $33,750 penalty for failing to properly install a discharge pipe that released water from the club’s water treatment system into the harbor. DEM’s investigation was prompted by a PEER complaint about the system’s submerged outflow pipe.

DEM inspected the Sakonnet Point Club in 2012 and 2018 and didn’t find any unauthorized discharges of sewage. No discharges were found during inspections at Sakonnet Marina and Acme Sanitary Service in 2019.

Kyla Bennett, director of PEER’s New England office in North Easton, Mass., said DEM’s testing of possible sources of sewage in the harbor is inadequate.

“Testing four times in seven years does not give me confidence that they are catching what’s happening,” she said.  

The 2019 report submitted by PEER found the bacteria enterococci in the harbor during weekly tests from March through August. Enterococci indicates the presence of fecal matter from mammals and birds. Possible sources, according to PEER, are sewage discharged from boats, including large offshore fishing vessels, unauthorized discharges from the Sakonnet Point Club, or another onshore entity.

PEER advocates for past and present public employees who have environmental complaints against government agencies. In this instance, PEER claims DEM appeared to make no effort to monitor or sample the harbor as part of its shellfish monitoring program. DEM, however, does sample the harbor six times a year between March and November. The state beach testing program only covers licensed beaches and there are no licensed beaches in the harbor.

PEER noted that club abutters have complained to DEM about strong sewage odors emanating from the area, septic alarms going off, and unusual pipe work taking place in the vicinity of wells and the desalination discharge pipe. The report also mentions the appearance of sewage clouds near the club’s sealed pipe.

The harbor is classified by the state as SA fish and wildlife habitat that allows for shellfish harvesting and recreational activities. Boaters aren’t allowed to discharge sewage into the harbor and must receive an inspection decal verifying compliance with the rule.

Last month’s PEER complaint accuses DEM of ignoring the violations and asks the EPA to take over DEM’s inspection and enforcement powers authorized by the federal Clean Water Act.

“DEM has dragged its heels and refused to investigate complaints from concerned citizens, ultimately allowing violations of substantial gravity to go entirely unpenalized,” according the six-page complaint. “Clearly, in this case the DEM cannot be viewed as meeting its delegated mandate to provide a credible deterrent against violations of federal environmental laws.”

Witnesses who have seen, heard, and smelled the discharge of sewage are afraid to come forward for fear of retribution, according to PEER. But, the organization said, if EPA conducts an investigation the witnesses will speak with federal officials.

The waste “is not miraculously appearing from nowhere,” Bennett said. “It’s either boats or business discharging onshore. All we know is something is contaminating that harbor and it should not be too hard to figure out where it’s coming from.”

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