DEM Urges No Contact with Blackstone River After Second Wastewater Leak from Woonsocket Plant
June 13, 2022
WOONSOCKET, R.I. — A wastewater plant has been discharging partly treated solid waste into the Blackstone River for more than a week, prompting a no-contact advisory for all water-based activities on the river between Woonsocket and the Slater Mill Dam in Pawtucket.
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management officials said they had been notified June 5 by the facility’s operators of a wastewater leak into the river. DEM then issued the no-contact advisory for the roughly 10 miles of river.
The wastewater facility is owned by the city of Woonsocket, but daily operations are contracted by two companies. Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering handles most of the wastewater treatment, while Baltimore-based Synagro handles solid waste incineration onsite. The plant processes between 6 million and 8 million gallons of wastewater daily.
“What’s happening at the plant is solids are entering the wastewater stream that’s emptying into the river; that’s not supposed to happen,” DEM spokesperson Michael Healey said. He added it was too soon to attribute the cause to equipment failure or process failure, or both.
Wastewater from homes and businesses at the plant is segregated into two different streams, one for solids and one for liquids. Liquids are treated and cleaned before being discharged into the Blackstone River, but solids are meant to be handled and incinerated by Synagro.
The waste that is currently leaking has been treated with chlorine, meaning the solids have at least been partly disinfected, but DEM said it is still “troubled” by the leak and considers it “unacceptable.”
It’s not the first sewage leak into the Blackstone River from the facility. Operators from Jacobs were cited 12 times between July 2021 and March 2022 for various violations of their state Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The company told state inspectors the violations were from issues with sand filters or extreme weather events, according to a letter of noncompliance sent to Jacobs in March.
DEM officials were notified of a sewage leak into the river from the Cumberland Hill plant on March 23, but the leak had started at least two days prior. Test results found elevated levels of fecal coliforms and enterococci, indicating bacterial contamination in the water. DEM water resources engineer Bill Patenaude told ecoRI back in March that he expected “the river will slowly clean itself.”
DEM issued a similar no-contact advisory for the Blackstone River once it became aware of the leak, but rescinded it two days later, on March 25.
Jacobs did not respond to a request for comment.
DEM will lift the current no-contact advisory after several days of clean readings from tests of the river water, but the department was unable to say when that would be.
The agency declined to comment or speculate on further enforcement actions against Jacobs.