Narragansett Bay Commission Digs into Final Phase of Pollution-Reducing Sewer Overflow Tunnel Project
June 23, 2021
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The end of a remote street where heavy construction equipment pounded and clawed a sandy lot under a beating sun seemed an unlikely spot for a gathering including members of Congress, state and municipal politicians and various administrators, organizers and advocates.
Yet the June 18 groundbreaking ceremony hosted by the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) marked the opening of the final phase in the largest public works project ever undertaken in Rhode Island, and likely the project’s last public appearance for some time as the work to benefit the surface estuary heads underground.
The groundbreaking attended by 100 guests officially opened the third stage of the utility’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) project, known as “RestoredWaters RI,” which is expected to create 1,700 jobs in an effort to raise water quality in Narragansett Bay and its watershed and subsequently improve health and environmental conditions.
NBC chairman Vincent Mesolella said the eventual completion of the phase-three tunnel will be followed by construction of a park to benefit residents of East Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket with bike paths, estuary overlooks and recreational and educational areas.
“The citizens will definitely see the benefits of this project, both environmentally and economically,” Mesolella said.
NBC operates Rhode Island’s two largest wastewater treatment facilities, Fields Point in Providence and Bucklin Point in East Providence, which together treat more than 30 billion gallons of wastewater annually. Combined wastewater systems can treat sewage and stormwater during heavy rains. The new CSO tunnel beginning in Pawtucket will run 2.2 miles and provide a 65-million-gallon capacity to contain water and wastewater resulting from foul weather overflows until the liquid can be processed.
“It will hold the storm-related sewage overflows that currently go into the Seekonk and Blackstone rivers,” NBC public affairs manager Jamie Samons said of the tunnel originating in a lot off School Street.
“It’s going to greatly enhance the quality of the water in those rivers, make the communities safer and healthier and it will have effects on the bay, as well,” she said.
The CSO project began with the 1993 approval of the three “deep-rock” tunnels and seven underground storage facilities at a cost of nearly $470 million. The final phase of the project is projected to cost $836 million and be completed by 2027. Additional components of Phase III, such as an interceptor gate and screening structure, will continue until 2041.
The venture is the result of a consent agreement with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to address storm-related sewage overflow entering Narragansett Bay in violation of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.
The first construction phase completed in 2008 consisted of a tunnel and support facilities capable of diverting 1.1 billion gallons of water and wastewater to the Fields Point plant rather than flowing directly into Narragansett Bay. The second phase concluded in 2014 reduced discharge from 17 sewer overflows in the bay’s watershed.
Samons said employees refer to the RestoredWaters RI subterranean tunnels as “the biggest projects you’ll never see.” The benefits are expected to include reopened shellfishing grounds and restored public spaces, such as a new beach at the Sabin Point waterfront park along the Providence River in East Providence.
The recent groundbreaking ceremony included comments from two members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Jim Langevin. Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera and East Providence Mayor Bob DaSilva sat in the front row as representatives of communities directly served by the forthcoming tunnel.
Whitehouse said the RestoredWaters RI project already has helped end the days when residents watched pollution lines expand and prevent fishing and swimming in increasingly large sections of the bay.
“With the work of the Narragansett Bay Commission, with the CSO, we’ve seen that turn around,” he said. “Just a month ago, shellfishermen went up into new, clean waters that hadn’t been fished for decades, and it’s because of this great work. And the bay is the heart of our state, it’s the sparkling center of our state. It’s vitally important to our economy and to see it get this kind of support is really outstanding.”
Langevin said the tunnel project will help fight pollution and will provide gainful employment. He recognized members of organized labor “who are going to build this project with their bare hands.”
The groundbreaking marked DEM director Janet Coit’s final public appearance before heading to Washington, D.C., to join U.S. commerce secretary and former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who announced June 21 that Coit will lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries office. Coit will also serve as deputy NOAA administrator and acting assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.
New DEM acting director Terrence Gray, who previously served as the agency’s deputy director for environmental protection, was on hand in Pawtucket as Coit lauded DEM, NBC, water customers and workers engaged in the “dangerous and hard” tunnel construction.
“But for the ratepayers of NBC — and critically important to recognize this organization, the strong laws, the work of DEM and enforcement of the laws — we wouldn’t be here celebrating this,” Coit said.