Environment Rhode Island announces filing of landmark settlement to keep sewage out of Newport beaches and harbor

Environment Rhode Island

Newport— Environment Rhode Island declared a critical victory for Newport beaches and harbor today, announcing that the City of Newport has agreed to take steps to end its illegal sewage and stormwater pollution. These cleanup measures are part of a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by Environment Rhode Island and local residents to enforce the Clean Water Act. The proposed settlement is being filed in federal court today.

“Newport’s waters are treasured by all Rhode Islanders – they are vital to our ecology, economy, and quality of life,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment Rhode Island.  “The City’s decision to take responsibility for ending its pollution will be appreciated for generations to come.”

According to the group’s lawsuit, the City of Newport has repeatedly discharged sewage into Newport Harbor because of its failure to provide adequate treatment for heavy stormwater flows.  In addition, the City allowed polluted stormwater that collected in Easton’s moat to empty into Easton’s Bay, where it polluted First Beach and Atlantic Beach.

Because of these sewage and stormwater discharges (and overflows from Middletown’s nearby pumping station), the state has deemed these beaches unsafe for swimming for at least 24 hours after heavy rain.

The proposed settlement of Environment Rhode Island’s lawsuit, filed in federal court today, requires Newport to undertake a comprehensive effort aimed at ending its sewage overflows and the pollution from Easton’s moat.  Anticipating today’s agreement, the City began this past May to treat the wastewater in Easton’s moat with an ultraviolet disinfection system.

“I have always wanted Newport to be a first-class tourist destination,” said Ted Wrobel, a Newport resident and a plaintiff in the case.  “Now the city is finally on a path to securing the clean water and clean beaches that status requires.”

For more than a decade, Wrobel and a handful of fellow Newport residents – including Henry Rosemont, David Wixted, and the late Burton Hoffman – monitored Newport’s sewage discharges and urged the City to fix the problems.

Their warnings went unheeded, until Environment Rhode Island and its attorneys determined that Newport’s sewage overflows violated the federal Clean Water Act.  In 2008, Environment Rhode Island and the four Newport residents filed a citizens’ enforcement suit in federal court to compel Newport to end these violations.  The group and residents also filed a similar suit against the Town of Middletown.

With relatively straightforward solutions at hand, an agreement was reached in the Middletown case over a year ago.  But agreeing on a plan to fix Newport’s sewage infrastructure proved more challenging.  In April 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) joined the suit as a co-plaintiff, and brought its technical expertise to the negotiating table.

“EPA showed true leadership in this matter by demonstrating to all parties that Newport’s sewage problems could be solved, with a concrete set of steps and a timeline in which they could be done,” said Wrobel.

The parties filed a motion today with U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith in Providence, asking him to approve the consent decree as an order of the court.

Meanwhile, Environment Rhode Island is working on a set of policies to hasten the end of all sewage overflows into Narragansett Bay.  In 2007, the group won state legislation requiring developers to curb runoff pollution when new development occurs.  Environment Rhode Island is now building support to retrofit existing developments.

“Cities like Newport should do their part, but we can prevent overflows more efficiently by ensuring that new and existing development are well-designed so that they do not overwhelm municipal sewage systems with stormwater,” said Rumpler.

The Plaintiffs in this case are represented by the National Environmental Law Center (“NELC”) in Boston, David A. Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts, and Karen Pelczarski of Providence.  NELC regularly represents Environment Rhode Island and its sister organizations across the country in clean water and clean air enforcement litigation.