Waste Management

DEM Urges No Contact with Blackstone River After Second Wastewater Leak from Woonsocket Plant

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A wastewater leak upstream in Woonsocket from Pawtucket's Slater Mill for the second time in three months has contaminated the Blackstone River. (istock)

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.

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  1. This is totally unacceptable! The timing couldn’t be worse as this year is the 50th anniversary of ZAP the Blackstone. ZAP was the first major clean-up effort that kicked off a 50 year legacy of grass roots efforts if mobilized volunteers working to clean up the Blackstone River. Spearheaded by then Pawtucket resident David Rosser and others with the Blackstone Watershed Association, 10,000 volunteers turned out to remove over 10,000 tons of trash.

    As part of the 50th anniversary Watershed groups have invited residents and visitors to to connect with the river also known as Kittacuck, great tidal river. Now, we are being told to stay away because of solid waste leaching and contaminating the river. Again, this is unacceptable on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the clean water act! The city of Woonsocket and the contractors need to act now and fix this problem so it does not happen again!

  2. This is a recurring event. A substantial fine must be levied to act as a deterrent for further pollution of the River. To many people have been working for to many years to have a callous plant operator constantly causing these discharges into the river. Enough is enough.

  3. I have lived in this area for 50 years and for about 30 years since the sludge burning plant took over, the smell has been very disgusting at times. It’s time for the DEM shut them down for polluting the Blackstone and our air. It’s disgusting because sludge from many states and communities are hauled here. Honestly, the more money a company makes, it appears the more they get away with polluting. Must have their hands in some political pockets. I find that it’s been environmental racism here in Woonsocket. Apparently, they think we don’t know any better here in Woonsocket. Try putting such a plant in Barrington or Newport and see the protests you get!

  4. I like to kayak and have been avoiding the Blackstone all summer. This issue was reported in June. Is there any update on the condition of the Blackstone?

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