2017-01-26 / Front Page

Middletown Proposes Septic System Regulations

By Olga Enger

Middletown property owners with septic systems, or 22 percent of the town’s commercial and residential buildings, may soon be subject to local regulation.

Currently, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has minimum standards for wastewater treatment systems, but as a reactive agency, it only enforces violations once a complaint is received.

Middletown’s proposed On-site Wastewater Management Plan (OWMP) would mandate regular septic system inspections and maintenance. Inspections would be required every three years and range between $200-$400, according to the town.

“Most homeowners are not aware of their responsibility to perform routine maintenance,” said consultant Steven Cabral during a presentation to Town Council on Jan. 17. “Most think if the system is not backing up, it must be working fine. If homeowners were aware of the rules and regulations, there would be fewer problems.”

By participating in the DEM-approved program, Middletown residents will have access to a 2-percent loan for repairing or replacing their septic system through the Community Septic System Loan Program.

“This is not unique,” said Town Administrator Shawn Brown. “There are communities across the state that have a plan just like this.”

In Middletown, there are 1,422 properties with septic systems and 5,148 that are served by the public sewer system. The majority of Newport residents connect to the public system, except for a handful of households around the Ocean Drive area, said Newport’s Director of Utilities Julia Forgue. Portsmouth does not currently have a DEM-approved management plan, but town officials are developing a program to improve enforcement of system maintenance.

Other Rhode Island communities participating in OWMP plans include Jamestown, Charlestown, Narragansett, and North Kingstown, among others.

Officials say the program’s intent is not to financially burden residents, but to prevent improperly functioning septic systems from compromising the water supply. Other sources of bacteria contamination, such as stormwater, agricultural activities, public sewer leaks and animals, are not the focus of the OWMP plan.

The concern bubbled to the surface two years ago after well water tests revealed elevated nitrate levels in several homes in the east side of Middletown. The problem was attributed to nearby septic system failures, which may be caused by inadequate sizing, failure to pump the system regularly, and improper installation or construction materials. Homeowners overwhelmingly rejected an $8 million proposal to install a water system in the neighborhood.

Such contamination may also impact public drinking sources and the beaches. The major drinking watersheds are Bailey Brook, Paradise Brook, the Maidford River and Gardiner Pond. These watersheds naturally drain the basins in a southerly direction where they feed Easton’s, Gardiner, and Nelson ponds.

The public water system, which is maintained by the Newport Water Department, services approximately 75 percent of the town.

Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues was concerned about mandated inspections and maintenance.

“There is a big push coming out of DEM from all angles. I think we are all in favor of cleaner water, it’s just how do we get there and at what cost,” said Rodrigues.

Before council votes on an ordinance, there will be several public meetings, said Public Works Director Thomas O’Loughlin.

“We can market it through groups such as Clean Ocean Access and the Aquidneck Land Trust. We will gather all that information and bring it to council,” he said.

The town administrator argued the system would be a monitoring tool to ensure residents are complying with existing DEM regulations.

“We simply want to put a system in place so there are a lot of different people contributing to the water quality of Aquidneck Island,” said Brown. “If we allow our septic systems to fail, it will impact wells and our drinking supply.”

Councilor Henry Lombardi said the town should go forward with the program to provide residents access to low interest loans.

“If we don’t do this, it puts a bigger burden on the homeowner. It may cost them more money up front, but the bottom line is this is something we should do for the homeowners of this town.”

A new septic system costs between $8,000 and $15,000 for a three-bedroom home, according to the town. The tab to connect to the public sewer system is approximately $6,500, but that is not an option for the majority of Middletown residents who have septic systems.

If the new ordinance is enacted, a homeowner could be fined by both the state and the town. Council President Robert Sylvia said he supports the plan but wants to protect residents from double jeopardy.

“I think what is important to recognize is that this plan is designed to enhance our septic systems and protect our most prized possessions. It’s something we have to be very serious about. The water is very important to our town,” said Sylvia.

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