2011-01-27 / Front Page

State sets sights on cesspools

By Tim Riel

The Jamestown Public Works Department plans to work with the state Department of Environmental Management to determine which cesspools on the island don’t comply with state regulations.

“Jamestown is probably going to be one of the first communities to have the phase-out implemented,” said Justin Jobin, an environmental scientist with the Jamestown Public Works Department. Because Jamestown has an Onsite Wastewater Management Ordinance, transition should be easier than in other Rhode Island communities.

“Jamestown would be among the first communities because they do have very good records,” the DEM’s Gail Mastrati said. “We’ve worked closely with Justin and they only have a few sites in town that are subject to the act.”

Jobin said there are 14 properties in Jamestown that could be affected by the Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007. “I have completed some initial [Geographic Information System] analysis,” Jobin wrote in a memo last year to the DEM, “and have concluded that there are approximately 14 parcels with cesspools or unknown systems that fall within 200 feet of the coast.”

The state cesspool phase-out act requires any cesspool that is “failed,” serves in a large capacity for a nonresidential facility or multifamily dwelling, or is within 200 feet of a shoreline, public well or drinkingwater reservoir be replaced by Jan. 1, 2013. Mastrati said that although there are no specific dollar amounts on fines for non-compliance, fines would be enforced. “They would be site specific, and would follow administrative guidelines,” she said. “[Fines] would vary for each site.”

The DEM defines a failed cesspool as any system that has sewage backing up, an insufficient liquid level, has to be pumped more than twice a year, contaminates a well, stream or wetland, or if the bottom of the cesspool is below the groundwater table at any time of the year.

Since the Town already requires routine maintenance inspections under the wastewater ordinance that was adopted in 2001, failed cesspools aren’t a major concern on the island. In 2005, an initial inventory was completed and 80 cesspools were identified on the island. According to Jobin, there are currently only 37 cesspools remaining. Along with the memo to the DEM, Jobin also included the GIS files of Jamestown’s substandard systems to Paul Jordan, the supervising GIS specialist with the DEM, so that a more complete analysis could be completed.

“I would also appreciate if the [DEM] could notify the Town as to the implementation schedule for cesspool inspections and phaseouts,” Jobin wrote in his memo. The state has yet to notify the Town of any dates.

Not all cesspools must be replaced if they aren’t in accordance with state regulations. If a sewer tie-in is available for a property, owners may opt for the less expensive alternative. If a neighborhood is currently without a sewer system but has plans to be sewered, the state will not require property owners to replace their cesspool as long as it has not failed, that it will be sewered no later than Jan. 1, 2018, and that the owner certifies “in writing that the building will be connected to the sewer system within six months of receipt of notification to connect to the sewer system. “

According to Jobin, “maybe two of the 14 parcels” in Jamestown that might need replacement cesspools are located conveniently enough to be able to tie-in to a sewer system.

If state regulations require that a cesspool system be replaced – or if the property owner has the option to tie-in to a current sewer system – the financial burden is on the property owner, not the state, city or town, according to the DEM. Hooking up to a sewer system is a significantly cheaper option that replacing an entire cesspool, and even more expensive if the DEM requires a cesspool with advanced technologies.

According to the DEM, replacing a cesspool with a conventional septic system could cost the owner between $15,000 and $20,000. Cesspools with conventional septic systems might not be the answer on some parcels, especially near bodies of water, which is an obvious problem for Jamestown properties.

According to the DEM, “Replacements on very small lots, lots in close proximity to wells and water bodies, or lots subject to other constraints might not be feasible with conventional septic systems,”

In circumstances where conventional systems aren’t adequate, advanced systems – which are more expensive because they reduce nitrogen – will be required.

If either of the two Jamestown parcels that fall within 200 feet of the coast is eligible to be connected to the sewer system, the cost would be considerably less, depending on the distance from the home to the sewer stub. Obstacles such as pools and ledges, along with the cost of replumbing, also factor in to the cost. The DEM says that the typical cost can range from $1,000 to $2,000.

Although the cesspool phase-out act can turn out to be an expensive requirement for some property owners, Jobin says that low-interest loans are available. For municipalities that have already enacted their own wastewater management programs – like Jamestown – the Community Septic System Loan Program is available. “Bascially, 2 percent loans,” Jobin said.

Although the Town has to approve the loans, Jamestown has been a member of the loan program, which is sponsored by the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency, since 2004 and has already approved more than $180,000 in financial aid for septic systems.

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