As of the first of the New Year – tomorrow – as many as 237 Warwick property owners will be in violation of state law if they have a cesspool within 200 feet of the bay or a fresh water drinking supply.
But what will happen to those in violation of the law is unclear. And, in fact, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is not certain whether it has identified all those impacted by the law.
“We have been trying to get in contact with everyone affected,” said Terrence Gray, DEM’s associate director for environmental protection, in an interview Thursday. He said DEM sent out an informational letter within the last month reminding them of the deadline.
But what can DEM do?
As Gray acknowledges, affected properties are often too small to accommodate a septic system and don’t have access to sewers.
“We’re trying to walk a very fine line,” he said, “between the law and individual hardships.” He said DEM does not have the power of condemnation and he supposes it would seek “to stop people from using a cesspool,” although that could pose other problems.
“It’s not an easy problem [to solve],” he said. Gray said the aim of the department is not to collect fines and impose penalties, but rather, “the focus is improving these systems because they are so close to the bay.”
With City Council approval of $56 million in sewer revenue bonds last month, those with non-complying cesspools living in Riverview, Longmeadow and Highland Beach have been given a reprieve from the Jan. 1, 2014 deadline. As sewers are going to be extended to the areas under Bayside Projects 1, 2 and 3, those with cesspools will have six months after completion of sewers in their area to connect. The deadline is Jan. 1, 2020.
But there are other areas where there are sewers and homeowners haven’t connected or a system was considered but hasn’t been installed.
Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, had high praise for the Spring Green Corporation that installed sewers on Gaspee Point where it leases land to homeowners. Burke put the cost of the system, which Spring Green paid for, at $3 million. She said that 85 percent of those with access to the system have tied in.
“Kudos to them,” she said.
But what will happen to the few that haven’t tied in? Will DEM come down on Spring Green, the landowner, or will they go after the leaser who owns and uses the house?
“It is our understanding that the cesspool is part of the house,” said Jonathan Zwarg, DEM senior environmental scientist. “It’s the [home] owner’s responsibility.”
“After the first of the year we’ll be re-grouping and see who’s affected,” Gray said.
The legislation, which was approved in 2007, provides for DEM to implement penalties. Zwarg said penalties haven’t been set.
Another neighborhood impacted is Cole Farm, a community of 88 property owners overlooking the Providence River.
Burke said the authority provided sewer stubs for Cole Farm, but the community has not developed a system and is not tied in. Zwarg knows of Cole Farm, but didn’t have any information of how residents there intend to comply with the law.
A Cole Farm resident couldn’t provide details, either.
Zwarg said DEM identified 564 potential Warwick properties with cesspools impacted by the 200-foot requirement set by law several years ago. Of that number, 165 were identified as being subject to tomorrow’s deadline. Of the 165, all but 53 have either tied into sewers or have an approved septic system.
However, there are still another 184 property owners who have not responded to DEM inquiries and could also be subject to tomorrow’s deadline.
In its Nov. 22 letter, DEM says it will begin enforcement activities after Jan. 1, 2014, “and you may be subject to penalties including fines and/or compliance orders recorded against the property’s deed. To avoid enforcement, if you have not done so already, you must submit an OWTS [onsite wastewater treatment system] application no later than January 1, 2014. The replacement system must then be installed within one year of issuance of the approved permit.”
The letter also cites tomorrow as the deadline for an application for a hardship.
The letter says a hardship extension is available to property owners in unsewered areas who meet certain financial requirements. If granted, the property owner would have until Jan. 1, 2019 to replace the cesspool. It says failed cesspools are not eligible for an extension.