Lawmakers seek help for groundwater woes
Jamestown’s state legislators Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport, Jamestown) and 26-year Rep. Bruce Long (R-Jamestown, Middletown) are tag-teaming to give state regulatory agencies more power to help housing developments such as Jamestown Shores that have high groundwater problems such as well-water contamination.
The contamination is being blamed on the accumulated impact of granting variances that allow too many septic systems on relatively small lots.
The Paiva-Weed and Long team reported their latest powerduo efforts at the Town Council meeting Monday. Councilors in turn promised to “bombard” state officials with information about the problems and about local determination to gain relief.
All parties acknowledged that the main barrier to meeting the challenges that will be based on any government action that appears to be a “taking of property” through denial or limitation of private land uses. They all expressed guarded optimism about the possibilities of being able to achieve something helpful to block further development of water well pollution. They also agreed that “no readily available solution” yet exists.
Until late 2005, local officials and affected residents had expressed pessimism about achieving any relief.
David and Jeanne Albrektson of Schooner Avenue, owners of a property with a contaminated well, reported their problem at a council meeting. They said that there are other home owners with polluted wells who have not put their situations on public record because they fear a loss of property value and there seems to be no help available for remediation.
The state legislators reported their actions that were highlighted by a mid-December meeting with state officials. They arranged last month’s session in response to reports about lack of government help when contamination of the Albrektson’s well was made known this past fall.
This week, the two legislators pledged to push for new legislation to give the state Department of Environmental Management and the state Department of Health the authority they need to respond to cases of well pollution and of potential well contamination due to overdevelopment of property.
Paiva Weed said they experienced the same kind of frustration that affected property owners faced when the legislators confronted state department officials about state government’s failure to help the landowners. They said they learned, as Albrektsons had learned, that the DEM does not have the legislative authority to act, and that the DOH does not have the funds, records, and possibly the authority to take action.
“I have some sense that DOH has not taken as active a role as they potentially could,” Long said.
Paiva Weed and Long said that their legislative efforts are seeking long-term solutions for all property owners with such wellwater problems and in terms of the amount of time it might take to get the legislation adopted by the state General Assembly.
Paiva Weed and Long each expressed encouragement particularly about the co-operation and enthusiasm expressed by DEM Director W. Michael Sullivan, who seemed to welcome the prospect of any legislative improvement that could be provided for action by his department.
The two legislators reported there appear to be a lot of “grey areas” in legislation involving both state regulatory agencies, and a lack of records at the DOH. Their findings and their efforts to correct problems will have statewide impacts, and it was Jamestown that started the search for a solution, the legislators said. They emphasized that all their efforts will focus on residential problems and needs and not go into the realm of commercial or industrial situations.
Council Vice President Julio DiGiando asked about the possible roles for the town. “What can we do until there is new law up to speed?” he said.
Paiva Weed replied that some local ordinances, especially those that deal with wastewater treatment districts, can be improved, especially because they can apply even tougher standards than state agencies. “It comes full circle, to towns, to enforce,” she noted. She also reported that such ordinances are mandated for review every three years and it might be possible to speed up that cycle.
Councilor Barbara Szepatowski voiced concerns that the evolving state approach represented “DEM and DOH giving up all liability for any permits they issue, leaving towns with the issue of land taking.”
Rep. Long said that some, if not all, problems are emerging because no variances were allowed in many cases in the past, but they are now being approved because of apparent advances in technology. “High tech is more the issue than ever,” Paiva Weed added.
Technological developments now are not really different than they were previously, Szepatowski said. She suggested that some of the so-called high-tech developments are creating problems. It was important that the state legislative leaders were assisting because she believes that state department officials listen to state legislators more than they listen to town officials, Szepatowski said.
Long said he believes the work is very important for all communities that do not have municipal water and sewer systems as solutions for such properties.
It was Szepatowski who urged colleagues “to bombard” the state with letters of concern about every variance request for septic systems in areas with high ground water.
The councilors agreed to adopt a generic letter drafted by J. William W. Harsch, town solicitor.
Town Conservation Commission Chairman Chris Powell, a DEM employee, was concerned that such a non-specific letter would be ignored. He said concerns need to be specific for each variance.
But Szepatowksi contended, “It puts us on record. We need to tell DEM. We need to bombard them. Maybe it’ll click if they get enough letters.” DiGiando said the letters “may not be sufficient enough, but sending nothing is not at all sufficient.”
Harsch said the letter would be placed in each file of any variance request. “It will be part of the record,” he said, so that all DEM employees would repeatedly be made aware of town concerns and the need to give full attention to the circumstances of each variance.
Charlotte Zarlengo, president of the Jamestown Shores Association, referred to the group’s longtime efforts to get help with the high ground water and overdevelopment problems for the Shores community. She said that the problems have increased tremendously and action is needed quickly.
The development of the Shores started in 1950. It was intended to be a developement of small seasonal cottages, but it has since grown into a year-round community with much larger houses.
Failure to act would not be limited to a few properties, but it would become a townwide problem, Zarlengo said. She said a few months ago, “Everyone in Jamestown is vulnerable. We all get our water from the same lens (source). It is the obligation of the town to do everything possible to locate the source of this (Albrektson) pollution and eliminate it. This health and safety issue, if not addressed, could potentially affect many residents of the town.”
It was suggested that the town has the ability to declare a moratorium on all variances for septic systems until an appropriate state law is in place. The councilors decided to ask the town planner, engineer, building official and solicitor to prepare status reports and make recommendations on the Feb. 13 council meeting. The councilors said they would not put the topic on the Jan. 23 agenda in order to give new Town Administrator Bruce Keiser time to prepare for the session.
“Controversy is expected. We are working to build support. Jamestown is being recognized, especially by conservation groups, as the leader. DEM is leading the charge,” Paiva Weed said.
Hazel Turley, a veteran local environmentalist, cited her research a few years ago on local groundwater contamination. She emphasized the need to replace cesspools with septic systems, and the implications of greatly expanding the small cottages originally built in the Jamestown Shores. She said some septic systems have to be pumped monthly, and well testing is being done.
DiGiando said, “That is part of it.” Councilman William Kelly said the points raised by Turley “will be a very important part of our discussion with the town engineer.”