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Web Special: DEM sends out reminders about cesspool laws

March 6, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN – The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has begun notifying home-owners in several coastal communities with cesspools that new waste disposal requirements are now in affect. Under the Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007, certain cesspools must be abandoned and the homes to which to be-long must be upgraded with a new onsite wastewater treatment system or be connected to available municipal sewer lines.
“Kudos to the General Assembly for passing this important law establishing a mandatory phase-out program for high risk cesspools,” DEM Director Janet Coit said in a press release. “With this measure, those cesspools posing the greatest threat to human health and the environment will be taken out of service. This is an important step towards improving the water quality of Narragansett Bay, our beaches and our drinking water supplies.”
According to DEM Senior Environmental Planner Office of Water Resources Jonathan Zwarg, the initial phase of the owner notification has begun in North Kingstown and Jamestown. Other towns will begin gradually over the next couple of months.
Recently, the DEM sent out notifications to 577 homeowners in North Kingstown and 12 homeowners in James-town. The actual numbers of cesspools will be lower than the number of homeowners notified, however, as some of the homeowners notified will either not have cesspools or be outside of the 200-foot zones specified in the Cesspool Act.
And while the mailing date for Exeter hasn't been decided yet, the DEM expects to send notifications to 25 home-owners in that town as well.
“All cesspools in Rhode Island pre-date 1968 are considered sub-standard systems,” said Gail Mastrati of the DEM. “Because of their age, most cesspools have reached the end of their life and some periodically cause sewage to be discharged into nearby surface waters.”
Mastrati further explains that cesspools don’t treat wastewater, but just dispose of it and that cesspools concentrate the wastewater in one location, usually deep in the ground which can come in contact with groundwater, causing contamination.
DEM estimates there are up to 50,000 cesspools in the state.
The act applies to cesspools located within 200 feet of the coastline of tidal waters, within 200 feet of public wells and within 200 feet of the shoreline of surface drinking water reservoirs with an intake to the water supply. The cesspools that are affected must be inspected within six months of notification from the DEM.
Following the inspection, homeowners must complete and return the Owner’s Response Form that was sent with the notification letter to the DEM. If the inspection indicates the cesspool has failed, it must be replaced by an onsite treatment system or connected to an available sewer line within one year of the inspection date or sooner if an immediate public hazard is identified. If the inspection reveals the cesspool has not failed, however, it still must be replaced with an onsite treatment system by Jan 1. 2013.
A hardship extension is available to owners who meet certain financial requirements. They would have until Jan. 1, 2018 to replace the cesspool.
In addition, financial assistance is also available through Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency. For homeowners who are questioning whether they have a cesspool or a septic system, it's important to know the difference.
A septic system is a small scale sewage treatment system common in areas with no connection to main sewage pipes which are provided by local governments or private corporations. Septic tanks are the key component to the septic system and the tanks range in sizes from 1,000 to 2,000 gallons and are connected to an inlet wastewater pipe at one end and a septic drain (commonly known as a leach field or seepage field) at the other end. In North America, 25 percent of the population relies on septic systems.
A cesspool, meanwhile, is a covered pit or hole which is used for sewage or refuse. Traditionally, it’s a deep cy-lindrical chamber dug into the earth, approximately two to three meters deep and one meter in diameter. Cesspools are vulnerable to overloading or flooding by heavy rains or melting snow because they are not enclosed or sealed like a conventional septic tank system. Cesspools are also vulnerable to the entry of tree roots which could eventually cause the system to fail.
Homeowners who are unsure if they have a cesspool or septic system with a leach field will need to hire a licensed septic system inspector to make that determination.
Even though the DEM will be handling this, the North Kingstown Water Department is urging residents to call the town's office at 294-3331 or visit the town's website at if they have any questions. North Kingstown offers two programs assisting residents in replacing their cesspools. One is a two percent North Kingstown Community Septic System Loan. The other is for residents who live next to Wickford Harbor and are re-quired to replace their cesspools with a more innovative systems, one which includes various pumps.
Residents can call the water department and inquire about various grant programs available to assist them.

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