Rhode Island Ignores Sewage Dumping in Historic Harbor   

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For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Contact:  Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Kirsten Stade

Rhode Island Ignores Sewage Dumping in Historic Harbor

Federal Action Sought to Stop Sewage Discharges Befouling Sakonnet Harbor

Boston — One of Rhode Island’s picturesque waterfronts appears to have a chronic sewage problem requiring immediate enforcement action, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Citing months of state inaction on citizen complaints, the group is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene.

Located on the eastern side of the state in the town of Little Compton, Sakonnet Harbor is classified as safe for shellfish harvesting for direct human consumption, as well as fishing and water recreation. While direct discharge of sewage into the Harbor is prohibited by law, citizens report that sewage dumping may be a regular occurrence, as evidenced by –

  • Six months of water samples collected and analyzed by a laboratory showing high levels of enterococci contamination, associated with human waste;
  • Boats in the Harbor this summer appeared to lack required inspection “decals” to verify compliance with the no-discharge law; and
  • Repeated citizen reports of strong sewage odors, possible use of an old well contaminated with sewage for cleaning boats, septic alarms going off at the nearby Sakonnet Point Club, and  discolored discharge coming out of the subsurface seawall behind the club.

“Sakonnet Harbor should be an ecological gem for the entire region, not a dumping ground for sewage,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that recent research has shown that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might be spread by contact with sewage. “The pandemic should be cause for heightened public health vigilance, not an excuse for official slacking.”

In 2008, a PEER complaint prompted the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to assess $40,000 in fines against the Sakonnet Point Club, a seaside social club, and its construction contractor due to illegal discharges of pollution into shellfish habitat, but in recent months DEM has remained largely unresponsive to numerous citizen reports, as well as some of the water sampling laboratory results. The Clean Water Act allows EPA to step in to take enforcement action where the state has shirked its responsibilities.
“The evidence of discharges is clear, but requires official investigation and follow-up to be meaningful,” added Bennett. “Rhode Island is administering the Clean Water Act through a delegation from EPA premised on the state providing comparable pollution protection, but DEM is no longer meeting this elementary standard.”


Read the PEER complaint 

See prior pollution enforcement action

Phone: 202-265-7337

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Silver Spring, MD 20910-4453

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