Comprehensive Enforcement Action, Federal Court Filings Require R.I. State Government to Reduce Pollution and Resolve Longstanding Clean Water Act Violations
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - United States Attorney Peter F. Neronha, Assistant Attorney General for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) of the Department of Justice John C. Cruden, and EPA Region 1 Administrator H. Curtis Spalding announced today that the United States has taken comprehensive enforcement action to resolve several years of significant noncompliance by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (“RIDOT”) with its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act and the permit that governs day-to-day operations of its stormwater drainage systems. The resolution is being carried out through the filing of a civil complaint in federal court in Providence, and the lodging of a consent decree that requires RIDOT to immediately begin comprehensive efforts to repair, restore, and improve its systems to comply with the law.
As detailed in the complaint filed today, it is alleged that RIDOT failed to comply with its obligations under the permit in four major areas: (1) taking appropriate steps to evaluate and address the impact of its systems on impaired waters in the State of Rhode Island, (2) detecting and eliminating illicit connections and discharges of pollutants, including sewage, from illicit connections, (3) inspecting, cleaning, and repairing its drainage systems, including catch basins and other components, and (4) conducting adequate street sweeping to reduce the flow of contaminants, such as sediment and other physical debris on roadways into waterways.
As part of its system of roads, bridges and other infrastructure, RIDOT’s roadways are accompanied by storm drains, pipes, catch basins, manholes, outfalls, and other drainage system components that carry stormwater runoff to approximately 235 impaired water body segments in Rhode Island: this includes waters that ultimately discharge into Narragansett and Mount Hope Bays. The RIDOT drainage system includes approximately 25,000 catch basins and 3,800 outfalls that extend over 3,300 lane miles of roadway.
The consent decree filed with the court represents the result of more than14 months of detailed and comprehensive discussions initiated by the United States Attorney’s Office and ENRD with the State of Rhode Island, culminating in a comprehensive agreement that requires RIDOT to address each of its areas of violation.
“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. 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,” said United States Attorney Peter F. Neronha.
U.S. Attorney Neronha added, “Today, with the filing of a complaint against RIDOT in federal court here in Providence and the entry of a consent decree between the United States and RIDOT, this will change. Under the terms of the consent decree, RIDOT’s obligations are clear – it must change the way it does business. It must do what it has repeatedly failed to do for years. It must comply with the law – specifically, the Clean Water Act. It must operate a storm water run-off system that protects, rather than harms, the environment. This Office, and our partners at EPA and ENRD, will hold RIDOT accountable should it fail to live up to its obligations.”
“This agreement is good news for communities and the environment of Rhode Island,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “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.”
“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,” said Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office.
Under the decree, if approved by the Court, RIDOT will pay a civil penalty of $315,000, and will undertake two Supplemental Environmental Projects (“SEPs”). These SEPs will result in the preservation, through conservation easements and permanent protection from development, of two parcels of land in Johnston and Lincoln, Rhode Island. These lands abut current state park or environmental preserves and lie within the watersheds of impaired waterways subject to the consent decree. Their designation as SEPs will ensure that they remain in their natural state for future generations of Rhode Islanders to enjoy.
To correct the identified deficiencies and meet its obligations under the Clean Water Act, RIDOT is required to develop stormwater control plans for groups of impaired water bodies (generally speaking, water bodies with high levels of pollution) that are near each other. These plans will identify the extent to which RIDOT’s roads and structures contribute to runoff to those water bodies, assess best practices to reduce pollution, and then implement measures (in some cases including structural controls such as infiltration trenches, basins, ponds, grass swales, and others) to meet pollution reduction targets, taking into account various specified formulas that assess the impact of RIDOT’s roads and paved areas on the amount of discharge to waterways. Once created, the plans will be subject to EPA review and approval, and must then be implemented by RIDOT.
Additionally, 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.
In addition, many elements of RIDOT’s physical systems, including catch basins, culverts, and other components of its stormwater drainage network, are in poor repair and have not been adequately maintained. In some cases, this prevents the system from working as it should to control pollutant discharge. Under the decree, RIDOT will submit an inventory of its physical systems by March of next year. It will then have to implement a comprehensive inspection, cleaning and repair program, followed by continuing periodic inspection and maintenance.
Finally, RIDOT must undertake an inventory of its roads and parking lots, and will then implement a street sweeping and tracking system to ensure that its network is fully and regularly swept.
RIDOT is required to file annual reports with EPA regarding its progress with all of the requirements of the decree, and the decree provides for stipulated penalties for future instances of noncompliance.
The investigation and resolution of this matter are the result of a coordinated enforcement effort among the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island, the Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division and EPA.
The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Zachary A. Cunha and Richard B. Myrus, Senior Counsel Elizabeth Yu of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice, and Enforcement Counsel Kevin Pechulis, of the EPA.
Jim Martin (401) 709-5357
on Twitter @USAO_RI