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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Progress on waste water treatment, salt pond protection

RIDEM agrees to major changes to wastewater treatment rules

Rep. Donna Walsh organized meeting to find common ground on environmental and economic issues
News Release from Rep. Donna Walsh

On Dember 16, Representative Donna Walsh (D-District 36) brought officials from the RI Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) together with town officials from Charlestown, South Kingstown and Westerly, and Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-District 34) and Rep. Spencer Dickinson (D-District 35) to resolve problems and find alternative waste water treatment approaches that protect coastal salt ponds without inflicting crippling financial burdens on homeowners or exerting a chilling effect on area construction.

“We all recognize the importance of reducing nitrogen loading to our ponds but we also recognize the importance of providing affordable solutions for our citizens and a stimulus for the stagnant construction industry,” said Rep. Walsh.

Rep. Donna Walsh with Rep. Teresa Tanzi
The discussion was frank and open about the hardships faced by homeowners under existing RIDEM regulations that limit the options for wastewater treatment systems and require homeowners to purchase expensive denitrification systems almost any time they make home improvements.

“I am pleased to report that RIDEM agreed to make three important regulation changes I hope will substantially help struggling homeowners and stimulate the construction industry without harm to our Salt Ponds Critical Resource Area.” Said Rep. Walsh.

RIDEM agreed to begin right away to write new regulations that would allow these three changes:

  1. Liberalizing the rules for renovations. Under RIDEM’s existing rules, any time a homeowner makes any change to the footprint or the height of the home, it automatically triggers the requirement to upgrade to a denitrification system. This creates instances where a homeowner seeks to extend a wall or add a breezeway but finds this change would force the installation of a $30,000 denitrification system. RIDEM agreed to re-write the rule and largely suspend this requirement for three years. Only a substantial alteration (renovation project that costs 50% or more than the assessed value of a home – or a septic system failure – would automatically trigger the requirement to install a denitrification system.
  2. Reciprocity. RIDEM will allow technologies that are permitted by other states and jurisdictions with similar environmental conditions to be used in Rhode Island. As RIDEM’s Russ Chateauneuf put it, “we know such systems have already gone through the testing and approval process in those other states, so there is no need to put them through it again to gain approval in Rhode Island.”
  3. Pilot projects. RIDEM agreed to make it easier to permit experimental use of promising wastewater technology. Up to 10 pilot installations of each promising new technology would be allowed to encourage innovations that achieve the same pollution control but at lower cost to come into the Rhode Island market.

One hoped-for solution is the enactment of state legislation that would require an upgrade to a denitrification system to be part of any transfer of property. Rep. Walsh has introduced similar legislation in the past and pledged to do it again. RIDEM suggested that they could add a provision to their rule on renovations that the rule would sunset after three years, or upon passage of a “Point of Sale” law.

“We made a lot of progress today,” said Rep. Walsh. “The agreements we reached with RIDEM today show they are open to new technologies that will protect the environment at less cost to home owners in the five towns – Charlestown, Narragansett, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Westerly – in the Salt Ponds Critical Resource Area.”

RIDEM agreed to meet again with drafts of the new regulations no later than March 1, and to strive to have the new rules in place by the start of the 2012 construction season. “I intend to stay on top of this on a weekly basis,” said Rep. Walsh. “I’ll be checking in with RIDEM to make sure these changes take place by the deadline we have all agreed to.”