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A Hummel Report Investigation

Clean Enough?

Narragansett Bay is the cleanest it has been in more than a century¬† - but the federal government says it’s still not enough. That means customers of the Narragansett Bay Commission pay triple what they did in 2001 because of nearly $600 million worth of water quality improvements over the past 15 years. This week Jim Hummel sits down with the commission’s executive director, who says it’s a delicate balance between clean water and equitable sewer rates.

Click here to watch our original 2011 report.

SCRIPT

The science tells us that Narragansett Bay has not been this clean in 150 years.
The days of floating debris and sometimes raw sewage after heavy rainstorms - are squarely in the rearview mirror - largely because of a massive combined sewer overflow project that went online eight years ago. Often called The Biggest Project You’ll Never see, it is an underground holding tank of sorts that allows overflow to be contained, then fully treated, after a heavy rainfall.
Marshall: ``We hear anecdotally from the shell fishermen, from the boaters that they’ve never seen the Bay this clean in their lifetime.’’
But Ray Marshall has also heard it from a scientist at URI, studying the water quality of Narragansett Bay. Marshall is the executive director of the Narragansett Bay Commission, which handles the sewage for a third of the entire state: including the communities in metropolitan Providence and the Blackstone Valley - serving a total of 360,000 people.
We first reported six years ago on Phase 1 of the CSO project, mandated by the federal Clean Water Act to achieve better water quality in the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.
That first phase carried a $375 million price tag. Phase 2 was completed at an additonal cost of $213 million - a hefty price tag born solely by the 80,000 customers of the Bay Commission. So while customers don’t see where their sewage goes after it leaves their homes or businesses, they do get a monthly reminder of what it costs to treat.¬† The water improvement projects translate into rates that have more than tripled over the past 15 years, from $135 a year in 2001 to $477 a year in 2016 for an average homeowner.
Marshall: ``The improvements have been dramatic, there’s still more to do. There are other sources of pollution, other than combined sewer overflows and treatment plants, such as storm water, all of these things take time and they cost money.’’
On paper the first two phases were supposed to take care of 60 percent of the pollution, but many feel it’s done much more than that. A planned Phase 3 would take care of the remaining 40 percent and will be the costliest segment - with an original estimate of more than $800 million. The commission has been able to make adjustments to reduce the cost to $760 million - but it still has some asking: how clean, is clean enough?
Hummel: ``How much is your Phase 3, $760 million extra, hundreds of dollars a month to your ratepayers, going to buy you in terms of cleanliness out in the Bay?. I’m not saying it’s ever going to be perfect, but some people are wondering is that Phase 3 worth what we’re going to get in the long run. Is that a question you ask here a lot?

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