East Providence city crews made a visit to Conimicut Beach on Saturday, but it wasn’t for a brisk walk on a chilly but sunny day. Rather, armed with buckets, the city workers were picking out hard pinwheel-shaped sections of plastic about the size of pasta rotelle from beach debris.
According to the Department of Environmental Management, the plastic debris was flushed out of the City of East Providence’s wastewater treatment facility in Riverside during the intense storm of March 2. The debris, called “media,” is not dangerous or contaminated with sewage sludge. It escaped the plant after going through the treatment system’s secondary clarification and disinfection stages. It did not escape directly into the Providence River, according to the DEM.
How many are there?
Michael Healey, DEM spokesman, didn’t have a clue but he thought Monday it could be “many thousands.” He said that over the weekend DEM received reports that the plastic media was being found on beaches as far south as Jamestown and as far east as Bristol.
According to a release, DEM is investigating the matter and will follow up with the city and its wastewater treatment contractor to identify interim measures that may prevent further release while they work to reduce the root cause of excessive flows. Residents are reminded that the discharge of stormwater and sump pumps into the city’s sanitary sewer are prohibited.
“With more intense storms due to climate change, unfortunately, we will see more trash and debris carried by stormwater into our waterways,” DEM Director Janet Coit said in a statement. “We need to do more to prevent plastics from ending up in Narragansett Bay.”
Healey said only two Rhode Island wastewater treatment plants use the media.
“We cannot have plastic going out into the bay,” he said. He said DEM is working to establish why the release happened and how to prevent it from happening again. He applauded East Providence’s rapid response in sending out cleanup teams. “To their credit, they were out there.”
Healey said the release was not a result of a storm surge, but rather wet conditions with excessive water flowing into the treatment system.
“Climate change is not an abstract thing,” he said.
He noted that the average temperature has increased by two degrees in the past 100 years and that the bay temperature has increased by four degrees in the past 50 years. He said the average rainfall has increased by 10 inches and that severe weather conditions are more frequent.
He said wastewater treatment plants that are traditionally built in low-lying areas need to be strengthened and fortified.
Last week, Save The Bay reported substantial amounts of the debris on the north-facing beach of Rocky Point. Other reports indicate debris having been beached at Gaspee Point and Conimicut.
The plastic media are used to help the wastewater system remove nutrients before the treated water is disinfected and discharged. They’re added to aeration tanks to increase the surface area for bacteria to grow. Bacteria help break down raw sewage for subsequent treatment.
DEM encourages anyone seeing the debris to call DEM’s 24/7 Dispatch at 401-222-3070 so that DEM can track locations and bring that to the attention of the crews working to remove the debris from our environment.
The East Providence treatment plant did not return a call for this story.