The state Department of Transportation is negotiating a possible consent decree with the US Justice Department due to environmental damage caused by years of inadequately monitored runoff on highways around the state.
"We're under a negotiation right now, the final stage of that," DOT director Peter Alviti told RIPR, following a briefing on attempts to bring more accountability to RI DOT. Alviti declined to talk in detail about the possible agreement, saying, "It's more a matter of coming into conformity with clean water [regulations].
Jim Martin, spokesman for US Attorney Peter Neronha, said the federal prosecutor's office remains in talks with the Department of Transportation about a potential consent decree agreement concerning violations of the Clean Water Act.
Martin said the underlying problem pre-dates the administration of Governor Gina Raimondo. "We've been in discussions with the state for quite some time," he said. Martin declined to comment on the impact of the possible violations or what sparked the enforcement action.
In a news release earlier this month, RI DOT disclosed that the state has never compiled a full inventory of highway drainage systems.
"Although it is estimated that the state is responsible for 25,000 stormwater catch basins, 2,000 outfalls, and 100 structural best management practices (stormwater treatment systems like detention ponds, retention ponds, and stormwater treatment units), this will be the first assessment of its kind by RIDOT," the agency said. "The results of this assessment will provide a comprehensive inventory of these assets and help the Department take a proactive approach to cleaning and maintaining these structures, rather than just responding to reports of flooding and damaged drainage systems."
Asked whether the state will face fines or other consequences as part of a consent decree, Alviti said, "I'm not ruling out any possibilities. It's just that while it's under negotiation and while it's under discussion, we're not at liberty to discuss any of the particulars."
During his Statehouse briefing for reporters -- part of which featured Governor Raimondo -- Alviti said DOT does not know where all of the transit agency's highway drainage systems are located.
Later, in a interview with RIPR, he asked rhetorically, "How could that be? That's the way it came to us. We don't know where they all are. And one of the things that we've laid out, as a matter of fact, in the previous press release we did on this was, we're instituting a program right now actually to go out and identify where they all are, what condition they're in and what needs to be done in order to fix them."
Alviti declined to specify what precipitated the federal enforcement action. He called the environmental damage from years of inadequate monitoring of highway runoff "undefinable right now."
"I think part of the process will be to define what the consequences are, but stormwater runoff and non-point source pollution, in general, is a significant contributor to water quality in our rivers, streams and bay. And this project that we've initiated is just the beginning."
Alviti said Governor Raimondo's RhodeWorks' initiative to improve the state's infrastructure includes an initiative to improve highway drainage.