Homebuyers won’t have to close down cesspools and tie into sewers or build approved septic systems that could cost as much as $15,000 this year, but the effort to close what is considered a polluter of ground water is far from over.
In the closing days of the General Assembly environmentalists and Realtors offered two sides to the issue as they focused on an amendment to the Cesspool Act of 2007.
The initial act requires homes within 200 feet of a shoreline or fresh water supply to replace their cesspools with a septic system or to connect to sewers.
Introduced by Representative Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34), in an effort to continue cesspool phase out throughout the state, the amendment would have obligated any homebuyer to similarly do the same within 12 months of the sale or transfer of a house.
The legislation was on the calendar for the full Senate after it gained passage by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture. The full Senate kept delaying action on the bill until it was too late and the General Assembly adjourned.
Larry Berman, the director of communications for the Speaker of the House, explained that the bill and many like it have been put in front of the Senate and it still hasn’t passed.
“It just wasn’t the year, it just hasn’t made it yet,” he said.
Although the Senate did not pass the bill, it did cause a lot of conversation on the issue.
The Rhode Island Realtors Association (RIRA) feared the bill would have damaged the housing market by causing too much of a financial burden on buyers and discouraging people from purchasing. The association claimed this would have set back the already frail housing market in Rhode Island.
Monica Staaf, legal counsel for the RIRA, said last week, “We see this as a win for us and for our clients.”
Staaf assured that Realtors believe in clean water and agree that the cesspools need to be phased out, but it needs to be done in a way that does not hinder such a delicate market. The legislation would have added $10,000 to $15,000 to the price of a home that had a cesspool, she said.
The bill was loosely based on Massachusetts’ legislation, but Staaf said Rhode Island’s bill didn’t look at what made the Massachusetts bill so successful. In Massachusetts, low interest loans were available and new homeowners could use tax credit to replace their cesspool systems.
“If this was truly a public health issue,” Staaf said, “why doesn’t everyone have to do it? Why are people in the market for a new home being singled out?”
The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) plans to meet with town and city councils of municipalities that do not offer low interest loans for new systems to convince them to start. RIRA has offered to speak at those meetings and show support.
Robert Martin, president of RIRA, agreed and said that the bill was too harsh on buyers and there needs to be a “funding mechanism” in place before a bill like this passes. Similar bills have been proposed throughout the years.
“We worked diligently to defeat this bill,” Martin said. “As presented, the bill was bad legislation for the blue collar individual buying a home with a cesspool. It would just compound hardship on any buyer and the market as a whole.”
RIRA is open to compromise though. Since the bill didn’t pass, the association has reached out to DEM.
Martin said, “We reached out to them; we have a whole year where we can work together to create a solution that we [RIRA] can stand behind and support.”
Larry Berman, spokesperson for Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, said that the bill was put aside due to the economic issues it would have posed to the real estate market.
“Mattiello felt that the bill would only further burden the economy that’s been depressed since 2008. Right now was just not the right time to move forward with this type of legislation,” Berman said.
Tanzi agreed, saying the final blow to the bill this year was the burden on homebuyers because financing was not available in all 39 communities in the state.
“Now in the off-season,” Tanzi said, “I am personally partnering with DEM to reach out to those communities who aren’t eligible or haven’t submitted the paperwork to get the financing. We are going to hold their hands all along the way to make sure they get the financing. And hopefully this time next year we will be celebrating a victory.”
However, Save the Bay wanted to see the amendment pass because more than 25,000 homes throughout the state still use cesspools. There are an estimated 3,000 cesspools in Warwick. These cesspools leave waste in the ground that continues to pollute Rhode Island waters according to the organization.
“Cesspools have not met state standards for wastewater treatment for over 40 years. How long will we tolerate the damage done to our groundwater and drinking water by these antiquated systems,” Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay, said a statement urging Senate passage of the bill.
Karen Beaver, counsel for Save the Bay, said, “We were very disappointed to see that the bill did not go through. We really thought this might be the year. Cesspools continue to contaminate our oceans because they are filled with bacteria, fecal matter, ammonia and other pollutants.”
Beaver said Save the Bay hopes to see and support the same legislation next year. She mentioned Save the Bay really wants to find a solution to eliminating cesspools and is thus open for discussion on the topic.
Jon Zwarg, senior environmental scientist for DEM, was also disappointed that the bill failed.
“It would have resulted in a rapid rate of antiquated cesspools,” Zwarg said.
He said that the longer we have cesspools in use, the longer it will take for the contamination from them to be eradicated. Although they are not the only source of pollution into the Bay, ridding any contamination from the water will help.
“Even just as someone buying a home; if you don’t replace a cesspool, you are going to have an unreliable system that could back up or even just physically collapse. It would be one less thing to worry about,” he said.
A similar bill will most likely be introduced in the Senate next year, and all sides of the argument have expressed the necessity of working together on a solution to the issue of cesspools throughout the state.
Maybe next year will be the bill’s year.