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Attorney General Neronha, DEM Director Gray announce action to protect Rhode Island waterways from pollution by stormwater runoff

 

Following RIAG petition, RIDEM will initiate stormwater permitting system to enforce Clean Water Act and prevent toxic algae blooms, high levels of bacteria, and frequent closures in Mashapaug Watershed in Providence

 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) Director Terrence Gray announced today they have taken significant action to protect Providence’s Mashapaug Watershed, located in the city’s Southside, from stormwater runoff, which has polluted the area’s freshwater ponds.

 

In an important step towards protecting a historically polluted watershed – which includes Mashapaug, Spectacle, and Tongue Ponds that ultimately feed the Roger Williams Park Pond – the Attorney General has filed a petition with RIDEM, arguing that RIDEM should address polluted stormwater runoff within the watershed under the Clean Water Act. Stormwater runoff is generated from rain and snowmelt that flows over paved surfaces, such as parking lots, carrying with it dirt, bacteria, and other chemicals into the waterways.

 

In response to the petition, RIDEM will issue a written decision on the Attorney General’s petition by April 30, 2024. The written decision is expected to unveil a permitting system that will provide for the management of stormwater runoff from currently unregulated sources, describe which commercial and/or industrial properties will now be required to get a permit, and make provisions for mitigation plans for the newly regulated properties. Examples of these types of mitigation plans could include leaf litter pickup, parking lot sweeping, planting trees, reducing pavement or utilizing pervious pavement. The decision will also resolve a petition on the same subject matter filed by the Conservation Law Foundation in 2018.

 

To date, pollutants in runoff within the watershed have resulted in elevated levels of phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, and fecal coliform, contributing to toxic algae blooms (cyanobacteria), and frequent closures of the ponds. As a result, the public has been frequently prohibited from recreational use of the ponds. Since 2011, there have been approximately 20 public health advisories related to cyanobacteria blooms in Mashapaug, Spectacle, and Tongue ponds, often stretching many months at a time. The area surrounding the Mashapaug Watershed is located in a heavily-paved urban corridor and is an environmental justice focus area.

 

“The untreated stormwater runoff into these three ponds – long-unattended-to resources in an environmental justice community – is an issue that we cannot afford to overlook any longer. Pollution from stormwater runoff and the issues that flow from it are familiar to many Rhode Islanders who are too-often restricted from enjoying their local natural resources. Accordingly, it has become plain to me that if we had not taken the action we are taking today, these ponds, their flora and fauna, and more importantly the health and wellness of Rhode Islanders within this community, will continue to deteriorate,” said Attorney General Neronha. “I am grateful to Director Gray and the RIDEM staff for their receptiveness to this petition and willingness to implement the measures we have been advocating. We are in complete agreement that swift and meaningful action must be taken. I also remain grateful for our strong partnership as we continue to advocate for and protect Rhode Island’s natural resources and the environment.”  

 

“Mashapaug Pond is an important urban waterbody directly upstream of Roger Williams Park. The pond and the watershed that flows into it have been found to have serious water quality problems caused in part by stormwater runoff. Stormwater issues are more immediate in urban areas because of the high percentage of impervious surfaces like streets, parking lots, and roofs. These problems need to be fixed,” said RIDEM Director Gray. “RIDEM appreciates the partnership of Attorney General Neronha in putting property owners in the watershed on a path to reducing pollutant loads into Mashapaug and the adjacent ponds, taking a major step forward toward cleaning up these important urban waterbodies.”

 

“Polluted runoff is the biggest source of pollution to Narragansett Bay and local waters today. For far too long, urban ponds like Mashapaug have suffered from stormwater pollution and have been overlooked. The people who live around and in this community have a right to enjoy the pond’s waters with peace of mind,” said Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay Executive Director. “The state is responsible for protecting these waters for the community, the environment, and Narragansett Bay. We welcome the actions taken by Attorney General Neronha and Director Gray today to set a new and positive precedent for tackling stormwater pollution.”

 

The communities adjacent to the ponds have endured legacy pollution and are disproportionately overburdened by the negative impacts of urban stormwater pollution. The ponds are predominately surrounded by impermeable asphalt and concrete surfaces which has led to significant stormwater runoff. Mashapaug Pond in particular is in dire condition and is listed by RIDEM as impaired by excess algal growth, dissolved oxygen, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish tissue, and fecal coliform. Since at least 1998, Mashapaug and Spectacle Ponds have been listed on Rhode Island’s 303(d) List of Impaired Waters.

 

“Polluted runoff is the biggest source of pollution to Narragansett Bay and local waters today. For far too long, urban ponds like Mashapaug have suffered from stormwater pollution and have been overlooked. The people who live around and in this community have a right to enjoy the pond’s waters with peace of mind,” said Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay Executive Director. “The state is responsible for protecting these waters for the community, the environment, and Narragansett Bay. We welcome the actions taken by Attorney General Neronha and Director Gray today to set a new and positive precedent for tackling stormwater pollution.”

 

Authority under Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act requires certain businesses to treat water before it enters the waterways, and authorizes regulation of other sources, such as commercial properties, on a case-by-case or category-by-category basis based on additional information or localized conditions. The authority to regulate these other sources based on the localized adverse impact of stormwater on water quality is commonly referred to as the “Residual Designation” authority, or RDA. Such designation requires that RIDEM, through its delegated authority, determine that stormwater discharges contribute to a violation of applicable water quality standards.

 

The RDA can be used to address commercial, industrial, and institutional sites. These might include shopping centers, malls, employee parking lots, office buildings, etc. Rain falling on impervious surfaces (i.e., concrete and asphalt) becomes runoff. The runoff flows into storm sewers and waterways (as relevant here), washing dirt, vegetation, fertilizers, oil and gasoline and other nutrient-containing substances into waterways.

 

 

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