The state Department of Transportation will be required to immediately take comprehensive steps to correct years of federal Clean Water Act violations involving more than 200 bodies of water, under a consent agreement filed Thursday morning in U.S. District Court.
The complaint filed by the office of U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha alleges that RI DOT failed to take appropriate steps to evaluate and address the impact of its highway drainage systems on bodies of water in the state.
RI DOT is responsible for about 235 "impaired water body segments," including waters that discharge into Narragansett and Mount Hope bays, according to the filing. The department's drainage system includes roughly 25,000 catch basins and almost 4,000 outfalls encompassing "3,500 lane miles of roadway."
The complaint also alleges that DOT failed to detect and eliminate "illicit connections and discharges of pollutants, including sewage"; failed to inspect, clean and repair its drainage systems, including catch basins; and failed to perform adequate street sweeping to reduce contaminants such as sediment and debris from roadways into waterways.
“For nearly a decade, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation has ignored its obligation to the people of Rhode Island to protect the waterways of this state," U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said in a statement. "Instead, through its neglect and indifference -- through its failure to inspect and maintain its storm water run-off system -- RIDOT has contributed to the pollution of those waters."
Details of talks between the Department of Justice and DOT over years of Clean Water Act violations were first reported by RI Public Radio last month. The state previously disclosed that it has never done an inventory of its highway drainage systems.
State and federal officials say the problems pre-date the Raimondo administration.
DOT reacted to the agreement with the following announcement: "For the first time ever, the Department has included $111.9 million in funding for drainage improvements in its 10-year strategic plan - a significant investment aimed specifically at reducing pollution from stormwater flowing into Narragansett Bay and hundreds of lakes, ponds and rivers throughout Rhode Island."
In a statement, DOT Director Peter Alviti Jr, said, "It became immediately apparent to me after starting at RIDOT that one of the biggest issues needing attention was the condition of our drainage systems, a problem we tackled head-on. It's time to stop talking about the problems and start fixing them, and we're committed to fulfilling RIDOT's obligations and responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. This funding will go a long way toward protecting our environment and the state's roads and bridges."
If the consent agreement is approved by a judge, the state will pay a civil penalty of $315,000 and take responsibility for the preservation, through conservation easements and protection from development, of two separate parcels of land in Johnston and Lincoln. The land in question borders existing state parks or environmental preserves.
“This agreement is good news for communities and the environment of Rhode Island,” John C. Cruden, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement. “This judicially enforceable settlement will require RIDOT to implement best management practices, including structural controls, to reduce stormwater pollution from its roads to impaired waters of Rhode Island. RIDOT will also be required to implement long-overdue repairs to its storm water drainage systems, which will also lead to improved water quality in area waterways, including the historic Narragansett Bay.”
Former Save The Bay head Curt Spalding, now regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's New England office, said, “EPA is pleased that we have now entered into a comprehensive legal agreement to ensure that RIDOT takes the necessary steps to comply with requirements that ensure a cleaner and healthier environment. This settlement is designed to produce environmental improvements on a timeline that is aggressive, but not unrealistic for RIDOT. This is good news for everyone who enjoys the natural beauty and recreational abundance of Rhode Island.”
The US Attorney's Office outlined the following steps required by the consent agreement:
-- RI DOT must develop storm water control plans for groups of bodies of water with high levels of pollution. The plans will be subject to EPA review.
-- "RIDOT will undertake a comprehensive program of sampling at locations where its systems drain into the environment to look for situations where third parties may have illicit connections to RIDOT storm sewers, potentially draining sewage or other non-stormwater pollutants through the system. When these tests identify designated pollutants, including high levels of bacteria accompanied by certain chemicals or biological indicators, RIDOT must investigate, determine the source of the connection, and take appropriate steps to eliminate it."
-- As part of the decree, DOT must submit an inventory of its drainage systems by March of next year and it will have "to implement a comprehensive inspection, cleaning and repair program, followed by continuing periodic inspection and maintenance."
This post has been updated.