Providence, Cranston businesses have gotten a pass on pond pollution for decades, until now

TOPHER HAMBLETT, executive director for Save the Bay, explains how high levels of toxic algae in Providence’s Mashapaug Watershed have prevented residents from using the ponds during a press conference at Save the Bay on Jan. 31, 2024. /RHODE ISLAND CURRENT/NANCY LAVIN

Green is usually the color of choice – literally and figuratively – among the environmental crowd.

But the shocking chartreuse of Providence’s Mashapaug Watershed is not a sign of health. Instead, the neon-colored, toxic algae blooms are tangible evidence of stormwater pollution seeping into the freshwater ponds and eventually out into Narragansett Bay.

A joint effort unveiled by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General and R.I. Department of Environmental Management on Wednesday aims to restore the watershed to its natural hues – and lower pollution levels – using a little-known federal regulatory tool to force commercial and industrial property owners to clean up their act.

“No matter who you are or where you live, you have a right to clean water, period,” said Topher Hamblett, executive director for Save the Bay, which hosted a press conference announcing the news.

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Plans to invoke the 1972 Clean Water Act’s provision for Residual Designation Authority to require stormwater permits for municipal stormwater systems and commercial operations come on the heels of the landmark 2022 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to address pollution in Massachusetts’ Charles, Neponset and Mystic rivers.

Unlike in the Commonwealth, where a federal agency is leading the charge to force unregulated private property owners to reduce stormwater pollution, Rhode Island’s enforcement efforts will be led by state agencies in conjunction with advocacy groups like Save the Bay and the Conservation Law Foundation. The goal: Bring the roughly 70 industrial and commercial property owners straddling the Providence and Cranston border around the ponds into compliance with state stormwater management regulations, which they have not had to follow previously because the businesses pre-date the 1993 onset of state stormwater permits.

In a 2018 petition, the Conservation Law Foundation called upon DEM to use its power under the federal Clean Water Act to force industrial and commercial properties surrounding the watershed to meet stormwater management practices. Similar requests were filed in other New England states. But the petition went unanswered because of state staffing shortages, the pandemic and uncertainty about how to wield the obscure clause within federal clean water laws, said Terry Gray, DEM director.

What’s changed since then? More staff, the model created by the EPA’s stormwater enforcement in Massachusetts and the pressure of a new petition by Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office.

“Our job is to move regulatory agencies forward,” Neronha said. “There’s momentum behind a petition brought by our office that may not exist elsewhere.”

The Jan. 31 petition details the “extreme pollution” of the Mashapaug, Spectacle and Tongue ponds preventing South Providence communities from fishing or enjoying these bodies of freshwater. Since 2011, there have been 20 public health advisories restricting use of the ponds for months at a time due to cyanobacteria blooms in the ponds, according to the petition.

That the neighborhoods around these polluted ponds have been designated by DEM as Environmental Justice Areas, based on the high number of low-income and people of color living there, makes the pollution a priority for both environmental reasons and social justice, Neronha’s office wrote in the petition.

Industrial activity has long dominated south Providence, from the late-19th century Gorham Manufacturing Co. site along the shoreline of Mashapaug Pond to the present slew of scrap metal yards and salt piles flanking Allens Avenue.

“This area and the people living there have historically been deprioritized, so much that the residents cannot boat, swim, or fish in the pond,” the petition stated. “The Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, built in 2007 on top of contamination from Gorham, requires a ventilation system to trap contaminants rising up from groundwater and into the air, as well as an eight-foot fence blocking access to the toxic site. The school has not built its own track or baseball fields because of Mashapaug Pond’s historical and ongoing contamination. The children who live in that area grow up making fences to surround contaminated areas as art projects and hear rumors that the water is so polluted that it makes frogs grow a third eye.”

For how shocking the brightly colored algae blooms and children’s tales are, the fix is relatively simple – requiring commercial and industrial property owners to rake their leaves, sweep their parking lots and add small drainage systems to collect the bacteria-ridden stormwater spurring phosphorous overgrowth in the ponds.

“This is not a chemical contamination that requires some crazy engineering project,” Gray said.

Neronha, too, stressed that he wanted to avoid burdening small businesses with onerous paperwork or costs. Instead, the forthcoming permit program to be unveiled by DEM later this spring will center on achievable solutions, with technical assistance and education aimed at helping property owners comply.

While the petition gives DEM 90 days to respond in writing, Gray said the plan to affirm the demands and authorize a permitting system are already in motion.

The affected property owners have not been notified yet; DEM is still identifying who would be subject to the regulations, said Joe Habarek,  the agency’s administrator of surface water protection. And the benefits of better stormwater management will take years to see in terms of bacteria levels in the ponds, according to Gray.

“This is not the only challenge or the end of the storm on stormwater,” Gray said.

He likened the undertaking to Narragansett Bay Commission’s decadeslong, $1.7 billion project creating a series of underground tunnels to capture and divert sewage overflow from entering Narragansett Bay. The massive public works project known as the Combined Sewer Overflow project began in 1993 and is not expected to be completed until 2027. It took several years of phased projects before pollution levels in the Bay dropped, Gray said.

Darrèll Brown, vice president for Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island, said he was happy to see movement on the stormwater management woes facing Providence ponds, despite some frustrations on the six-year delay from when the foundation first implored DEM to take action.

“It’s been a little bit frustrating, but we are working together now,” Brown said. “No one wants toxic ponds.”

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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