Under pressure from AG, Woonsocket looks to cut ties with liquid waste customers

THE INCINERATOR at the heart of Synagro Technologies’ operations at the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility burns solidified sludge to produce an ash that is taken to the state Central Landfill. Pictured from left, Karl von Lindenberg, process improvement manager for Synagro, and Frank McMahon, a company spokesperson. (PHOTO BY MICHAEL SALERNO/RHODE ISLAND CURRENT)

Fifteen months after Woonsocket wastewater treatment plant owners and operators were sued for dumping partially untreated sewage into the Blackstone River, city officials are moving to scale back services.

Which, it appears, will come as a surprise to the affected cities and towns that pay to send their waste to the regional plant, as well as at least one of the state agencies behind the lawsuit.

A resolution unanimously approved by the Woonsocket City Council at a special meeting on May 22 declares the city will eventually stop accepting liquid sludge from other cities and towns and companies, linking this service to “ongoing complaints of foul, odious and repugnant odors.”

The incineration arm of the city-owned plant — and specifically buildup within the gravity thickener used to treat liquid waste — lies at the heart of a legal complaint filed in Providence County Superior Court in March 2023 by the R.I. Office of the Attorney General and R.I. Department of Environmental Management. A separate class action lawsuit led by local residents, alleging the smells emanating from the plant have hurt property values and quality of life, was filed in Rhode Island District Court in July 2023. Both cases remain pending, according to court records.

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“We’ve been treated like a red-headed stepchild here in the city, with other municipalities and entities bringing their liquid sludge here,” City Councilor Brian Thompson said during the May 22 meeting. “This will be a correction for a lot of people that live in the area. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

But scrubbing the reputational stain from the Woonsocket Wastewater Treatment Facility could raise a stink among the dozens of cities and towns, as well as private companies, that depend on the plant to treat thousands of gallons of sewage byproducts. Not to mention the private contractor hired to run the incineration arm of the plant, whose profits are directly related to the amount of waste it treats.

Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for Synagro Woonsocket LLC, the contractor which runs the incineration side of the plant, said in an emailed statement that the company was “disappointed with the city’s decision.”

“We understand why the city is taking this action and are gratified that the city understands the need for a reasonable transition period so that Synagro and its customers can work on alternative arrangements,” McMahon said.

McMahon did not respond to follow-up questions, including how its customers would react to the city’s resolution, or revenue impacts.

Steve D’Agostino, Woonsocket’s public works director, did not expect the news would go over well.

“Their customers are going to be shocked,” D’Agostino said in an interview on May 23. “They don’t want to do this. There will definitely be some pushback.”

The city has not notified any of the affected cities and towns about its plans. The resolution is a preliminary step in what will likely be a yearslong, incremental change, Council President John Ward, who sponsored the resolution, said.

Now what?
It’s also not the city’s problem; Synagro, as the contractor providing services to treat liquid waste from outside merchants, is on the hook to let its customers know. The Baltimore-based company, which has 22 non-union workers in Woonsocket, oversees incineration of up to 105 tons of dried waste a day, about 10% of which comes from the Woonsocket plant itself, with the rest trucked in from 30 cities and towns across the region, according to Synagro’s website.

About half of the trucked-in waste has already been “dewatered” into solid cakes, which the city would continue to accept and treat. It would also continue treating the 10 million gallons of waste daily coming from the municipal, combined sewer system, which encompasses Woonsocket, North Smithfield, and Bellingham and Blackstone, Massachusetts.

It’s the liquid sludge from other municipalities and companies, in need of a costly, smelly and equipment-taxing dewatering, that the city no longer wants a part of.

The lawsuit points to problems in the gravity thickener which treats liquid sludge as the reason why untreated sewage spilled into the Blackstone River in March 2023. The 50-year-old piece of equipment has been shut down since the complaint, with the city spending more than $130,000 a month to rent a temporary substitute from Synagro. Another $3 million worth of repairs to the gravity thickener are underway, expected to be completed by August, D’Agostino said.

The city is also considering approving a $30 million borrowing plan to pay for renovations and repairs to the incineration arm of the plant.

Even with a very costly repair job, Ward worried the equipment can’t handle the volume of waste without running the risk of more problems, and even more costly lawsuits.

“It puts a lot of stress on the operation and has the potential to create very bad situations in terms of the risk of untreated material ending up in the river,” he said in an interview on May 23. “It’s clear that it’s in the best interest of the city to move toward incinerating only dried cake.”

Michael Lepizzera, city solicitor, also hopes the move could help settle the legal complaint, which names the city, Synagro, and Jacobs Engineering Group, a separate company contracted to run the sewage treatment side of the plant, as defendants.

“These steps directly alleviate the concerns raised in the lawsuit,” he said.

It’s not clear that the state agencies suing the plant operators agree with the city’s solution. Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office declined to comment.

Joe Haberek, surface water protection administrator for the Department of Environmental Management, was unaware of the resolution approved by the council until asked by Rhode Island Current in an interview on May 23. Haberek’s department has been closely scrutinizing treatment plant activities and water bacteria levels in the wake of the lawsuit.

“We would be concerned about that exact notion,” he said of the city’s resolution to stop accepting liquid sludge. “It would be very disruptive, especially if it’s done too soon.”

Few options in region
DEM, which sets standards for municipal wastewater treatment, requires Woonsocket to offer contingency plans for its customers if it can no longer perform the agreed-upon services, including treating liquid sludge. That could mean sending the liquid waste byproduct elsewhere, though regional options are scarce: the closest plants are in Cranston or Connecticut, Haberek said.

And at some point after the contingency period ends, the cities and towns that have relied on Woonsocket for years, even decades, to deal with liquid waste are on the hook. That includes nine wastewater facilities in Rhode Island: six municipalities, plus the facilities at Quonset Business Park, Toray Plastics (America) Inc., and Eleanor Slater Hospital’s Zambarano campus in Burrillville, according to information shared by Lepizzera.

Lindsay Russell, a spokesperson for Quonset Business Park, confirmed in an email that the business park’s wastewater treatment facility sends 400,000 gallons of liquid sludge to Woonsocket each year. Being unable to do so would “limit Quonset’s sludge-holding capacity,” she said.

Christina O’Reilly, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Administration, said the amount of waste the state sends from the Zambarano hospital to Woonsocket is “relatively small” — about 8,600 gallons every three months.

“We have not received notice of intent to terminate this service; should that be the case the State would then seek to secure a vendor contract for a comparable transport and incineration arrangement with an alternate site,” O’Reilly said in an email on Friday.

The city of Warwick and Toray Plastics were not able to offer comments as of late Friday afternoon. Other affected cities and towns, including Narragansett, East Greenwich, Warren, South Kingstown and Burrillville did not return inquiries for comment.

Ending treatment of outside liquid sludge also means giving up a portion of the revenue the regional plant provides for a cash-strapped city, where nearly 1 in 5 of its 42,000 residents fall below the federal poverty line, according to Census Bureau estimates. The city brings in $3 million in annual host fees from the two contractors plus a share of royalties from incineration up to $600,000 a year, according to contracts previously obtained by Rhode Island Current through a public records request. Woonsocket has its waste treated for free.

Both Ward and Lepizzera declined to share details on the expected revenue loss, citing the pending lawsuit.

But any financial cut pales in comparison to the price the city could pay if equipment failures and lawsuits continue, Ward said. Already, the existing legal complaint comes with up to $35,000 a day in fines, though Attorney General Peter Neronha said previously he was more focused on correcting the problems than imposing fines.

Breaking up: Will it be hard to do?
Recent monthly water quality reports turned into DEM show bacteria levels have remained below the maximum threshold for the most part, according to documents shared by Haberek.

But D’Agostino still thinks Synagro’s performance is lacking.

“Let’s just say Synagro’s housekeeping leaves something to be desired,” he said. “They’re not taking care of the facility.”

He continued, “We need to move in a different direction for the quality of life of our residents.”

The new direction could mean breaking the existing long-term contracts with both Synagro and Jacobs. Existing agreements won’t expire for more than a decade, but city officials have discussed ending them now in order to ink a new deal with a single operator that oversees both sewage treatment and incineration sides of the plant.

Synagro does not have the expertise to take on the wastewater treatment side, automatically taking it out of the running, D’Agostino said. He views Jacobs, a Texas-based company which has run the sewage treatment side since 2012, as the ideal operator for the entire plant.

Jacobs did not return multiple inquiries for comment.

The Woonsocket mayor’s office also did not return calls for comment.

Woonsocket City Council members Valerie Gonzalez, Scott McGee and David Soucy did not attend the council’s May 22 meeting.

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

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