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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Updated: Crisis at Cumby's

Cumberland Farms on Old Post Road closed due to failed septic system
That's not rain water. Photo taken by Matt Dowling Monday afternoon
By Will Collette

Update: according to the Westerly Sun, Cumberland Farms issued a statement saying “A small amount of surface water was found during inspection of the septic system" and that their engineer is looking into it. If the pools of sewage show in the photos are "small amounts," I'd hate to see what constitutes large amounts.

Even a brand-new, state-of-the-art denitrification system can lead to costly trouble. The Cumberland Farms store on Route 1A (Old Post Road) was ordered closed by the RI Health Department until Cumberland Farms can bring their system into compliance.

Charlestown’s Wastewater Management Officer, Matt Dowling, spotted pooled “water” on top of the store’s Advantex bottomless sand filter system, indicating failure. When he returned to the site with his kit and camera, he documented the pools of sewage on the ground (see Matt’s photos). He took immediate enforcement action, formally notifying the franchise owner, VSH Realty of Johnston, of the system failure and the town’s enforcement action compelling the store to pump away the sewage to keep it from pooling on the surface or flowing off the property.

He also ordered Cumby’s to set up a barrier to keep people off the site. If you look closely at Matt’s photos (see one of them to the right), you’ll see human footprints in the muck.

Matt also notified the RI Health Department. When DOH came in on Tuesday, they ordered the store closed. When the store suffered a similar failure last year, they were allowed to keep the fuel pumps going, but nothing else. At present, the entire business is closed, but a similar limited arrangement may be allowed.

When I checked out the store on Wednesday afternoon, the entire store was closed. A steady stream of patrons came over to try the front door, and when finding it was locked (and the store dark), they read the notice taped to the door that the store was closed (duh).

As my photo (left) shows, Cumberland Farms promptly complied with Matt’s order to fence off the area and make sure no sewage broke the surface. Given the heavy overnight rain, it was impressive to see the site so dry.

However, a permanent fix that will allow the store to reopen is likely to be a problem. In an interview, Matt told me that the type of system that was installed last year was an approved system with the right average flow rating – as was the failed system it replaced.

One of several customers I saw who tried the door, despite no lights inside
and a sign on the window
But the system design apparently didn’t factor in the special challenges posed by a coffee shop/convenience store. Matt said that in addition to all the effluent from the rest rooms, there’s also the problem of dumped coffee and perhaps dumped milk. Dumping a lot of organic waste like that down the drain can overload and clog the system. A lesson for all of us.

Under the Health Department’s closure order, Cumberland Farms has 60 days to submit an application to DEM for their system. Given that this Cumby’s site is now a two-time loser using the bottomless sand filter approach, I’d expect Cumby’s will tell its engineer (presuming they don’t fire their engineer) to come up with a new approach that will work. Click here to see Cumby’s permit.

Getting DEM approval for a new system is going to tack on more lost time and sales revenue for the store.