2008-02-07 / Front Page

EPA hearing next week on Sole Source Aquifer

By Adrienne Downing

The federal Environmental Protection Agency will hold a hearing in Jamestown next week as the next step in the process to determine whether Conanicut Island should be designated a Sole Source Aquifer.

The meeting will be held at the Jamestown library on Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. and is open to the public.

A group of Jamestown residents, headed by Ellen Winsor, have petitioned the EPA for the designation in hopes of educating islanders about the island's water supply.

"This is of interest to the entire town," Winsor said. "We have a prime opportunity to protect our island's water supply. It is a wonderful layer of protection that we would have."

The SSA program was provided for by the U.S. Congress under section 1424E of the Safe Water Drinking act in 1974. There are currently 77 SSA designations in the United States, with 15 of them falling in the New England region. There are three in Rhode Island, including the Pawcatuck River, the Hunt-Annaquatucket-Pettaquamscutt in North Kingstown, and Block Island.

"The public hearing is one of the key steps in the process," said Doug Heath, a hydrogeologist with the EPA. "This happens after we deem the petition is complete enough to satisfy all of the requirements for an area to qualify as a Sole Source Aquifer. It allows us to give information and receive written and oral comments about the process and the designation."

The hearing will include a brief presentation, a description of the petition and remarks by key personnel at the state level, followed by a public question and answer session.

Heath said that the EPA will take written comments for two weeks after the hearing, and it will respond to the written comments in writing.

"The most important thing about the hearing is for residents to get answers for their concerns," Heath said.

One local concern that has already been raised is if the designation is really necessary, considering that the SSA designation could impact future projects in Jamestown.

"If an area is designated as an SSA, the EPA gets involved in any projects that receive federal funding or grants," Heath said.

Over 90 percent of the projects the EPA has participated in as a result of the area being an SSA have been airport expansions and federal highways where storm water runoff or spillage have been concerns, Heath said. The other 10 percent have mainly involved large-scale wastewater treatment facilities like those from nursing homes and hospitals.

Those statistics are exactly what Town Administrator Bruce Keiser says show that the designation is not required on the island.

"The EPA gets involved, for good reason, in these large federally funded projects that we are not likely to have here in Jamestown. We have one federal highway, and we don't plan on building another. Most of the land on the island is either protected or developed, so there isn't even enough land for a project of that scale to be even possible here. We are not being threatened by projects that might harm the water supply," Keiser said. "On the other hand, we are planning an affordable housing development and we do not want federal interests to slow down or add additional costs to the project when we are already very good stewards of our water supply."

Heath said that the EPA does have an understanding with other federal agencies that they will alert the EPA to projects that involve an SSA, but that does not automatically mean that they will get involved.

"A typical question of concern is that there will be federal intrusion at the local decision-making level and the answer is absolutely not," Heath said.

Still, Jamestown Conservation Chairman Chris Powell said Jamestown has a model program for the island's water protection and he does not see the need for additional oversight.

"The idea of protecting water is always a good idea, but we are doing a great job now and it is necessary to look at the benefits and the downsides to a program like this," Powell said.

Winsor said that although the program may not have tangible benefits to the island, the educational benefits are worth it.

"We are a summer community and people come here from other places where water use may not be an issue. This is our way of letting them know that when they are here, they need to do things differently," Winsor said.

The next step in the process following next week's hearing is for Heath and Karen McGuire, the EPA's assistant branch chief of drinking water, to put together a package for EPA Regional Administrator Robert Varney.

"This will include the petition, and all of the correspondence about the matter, for his consideration. Once he signs off on the package, the designation is published in the federal register," Heath said.

According to Heath, Varney has the sole authority on whether to issue the designation for Conanicut Island.

"Jamestown has led in a lot of ways when it comes to water, and I think this is one more way we can," Winsor said.

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