Public ignores council hearing on storm-water rules
No townspeople attended the Dec. 6 public hearing on three ordinances pertaining to storm-water runoff. The Town Council unanimously adopted the new regulations, which under a state mandate must take effect by Dec. 31.
The three laws are intended to define and stop all illegal discharges into the town storm drainage system. The laws are required under initiatives adopted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s and 1980s.
Even without public comment, the councilors took about 40 minutes to review several aspects of the rules before agreeing to adopt them as presented. The Planning Commission previously adopted them and recommended them to the council.
In noting the lack of public commentators on the proposals, Council President David Long ascertained that the hearing had been given proper notice. He then declared that he was confident that residents know how to make themselves heard when they had any concerns. “The people are diligent about responding,” he said.
Dean Audet, vice president of Fuss and O’Neill consultants of Providence, reviewed the ordinances and answered questions from the councilors. He had also made a presentation about the regulations at a meeting last month. The town had been given a $25,000 grant through the state Department of Environmental Management to help the town with the ordinances. He worked with Town Planner Lisa Bryer, Assistant Public Works Director Michael Gray, and Town Solicitor Lauriston Parks in drafting the ordinances.
The EPA mandates are being enforced through the DEM authority for a Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. The DEM regulations on storm-water runoff were adopted in 2003.
The laws provide for disconnection of illegal connections that channel contaminating materials into town storm drains. The rules allow the town to enter private properties to test for sources of illegal discharges. The suspected sources can be narrowed to a few possibilities in the drainage system within public rights-of-way, but need to be pinpointed by additional tests, Gray and Audet explained.
Audet and Gray both emphasized that officials and residents need to understand that the new laws involve quality of the water, not the quantity, and are therefore not directly related to flood control.
Some councilors, especially Vice President Julio DiGiando and Councilman William Kelly, had concerns about what they perceived to be a lack of consistency with high groundwater regulations being applicable only in some parts of the town and the new storm drainage regulations being applied throughout the island. Parks and other officials spoke to try to eliminate the perception of inconsistencies.
Audet said the ordinances, as presented, “are sufficient to meet the requirements” set by the federal and state mandates. He said the town could adopt even tougher rules if needed and practical. The councilors and officials discussed tougher rules but concluded that enforcement would be too complex and costly. They agreed that the rules as drafted should be tried before adding to them.
At the urging of Councilor Michael Schnack, the councilors talked about quicker and tougher enforcement by making violators subject to immediate disconnection. The proposed regulations call for a sevenday grace period before fines begin. Schnack was concerned about health and other dangers that might be uncovered and need immediate attention. Parks said an injunction could be quickly obtained if the dangers were that serious. Long was concerned that work on a solution to a storm-water runoff problem “can be dragged out.” Kelly said officials need to be able to evaluate if a good faith effort was being made to correct problems versus a violator taking a position of non-compliance. After the discussion, the councilors agreed that a seven-day allotment for compliance was reasonable, and that police and court action are available if needed for quicker correction.
The councilors reviewed the rules as they apply to erosion control for construction or disturbance, for 1,000 square feet of construction or 2,000 square feet of land. They noted that there seem to be ways around that rule, and that it might be better to apply it to smaller areas. DiGiando especially spoke for applying the new rules to smaller land disturbances. That is when Audet and Gray suggested that the enforcement might be costly and impractical.
“We assigned two public works crewmen to work with DEM this summer and found it is time consuming and takes resources,” Gray said.
“Every surface generates pollutants… all paving, all lawns, all gutters, asphalt roofing. The more dense development there is, the more potential for impacts. It will take 100 years to see the benefits, compared to the engineering and enforcement costs on smaller projects,” Audet said.
The town is responsible to identify and record every outfall of storm runoff into the bay and to test and trace any unusual findings for the source and then seek prosecution, Parks said. He suggested the town do the minimum required until it learns what is involved.
The lawyer noted that the town has the right, and does apply it, if a property owner pumps runoff onto a town roadway and it freezes. “The town sands it and bills the property owner,” Parks said. “Sometimes, that leads to its being fixed,” he added.
Councilor Barbara Szepatowski was concerned about property owners’ understandings of the requirements, and whether the regulations would force them to have to hire professional engineering assistance for even relatively small projects. With council approval, she and Gray agreed to work on a checklist-type brochure that would make the rules easy to understand, so land owners would be able to determine when they need professional help.
Kelly praised town Building Official Fred Brown for already being helpful with data and insight about such matters.
When Kelly asked about the impact of the post-construction rules within the ordinances on such problems as potholes caused by stormwater runoff, Audet said that the new rules would not solve all runoff problems. He repeated that the new ordinances were designed to address water quality, not quantity.
Parks said that certain runoff situations can be defined within existing laws about public nuisances and can be handled in that way.
Audet had explained that 36,000 bodies of water in the United States are impacted by illegal drainage that cause swimming and fishing to be banned in those waters. He said that half of the illegal sources represent storm-water runoff. He said the cleanup work started by the EPA focused at first on wastewater treatment plants, then on industrial sources. Now the EPA is working to eliminate problems in storm run off in general, and especially from residential properties.
Audet said that technically only about 70 percent of Jamestown is impacted by the federal and state laws involved, but for practical purposes, the regulations are islandwide.
He listed a five-point effort that the ordinances represent:
• Education that every cigarette butt, piece of trash thrown out of car windows, leaking or discarded motor oil, and any gray water into the storm drains contribute to major problems of pollution.
• Public participation in surveys to inspect all outfalls and catch basins, trace sources and eliminate them.
• Cleanup of stream and road litter.
• Construction run off elimination by improved methods on all sized projects.
• Follow-up to make sure that post construction in new developments is properly stabilized.
Audet said that the goals are to eliminate all non-storm, non-groundwater flow from the town’s storm drainage system.