What You Should Know

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) estimates that there are 50,000 cesspools in the Ocean State, all considered substandard.

Many of these cesspools—underground pits or tanks into which untreated human waste pours—overflow into backyards and leak contaminants to groundwater, contributing to dangerous bacteria and nutrient loading into the Bay and drinking water sources. Cesspools have been linked to recent clam and fish kills, and nutrients from their overflow contribute to the floating sea lettuce mats found in open water, as well as the increase in green slime and stench that invades coves and inlets.

You may think that a residential cesspool makes an insignificant contribution to groundwater contamination, but their sheer number (with a high concentration in Rhode Island coastal communities) makes them a serious contamination source and a danger to public health.

Unacceptable waste treatment
The primitive cesspool —
a 55-gallon drum with holes in its sides — is a danger to public health.
Illustration by John Githinji and Page Carr.

If the thought of flushing your toilet into a hole in the yard seems primitive, it is. This method of wastewater disposal dates back to 17th century colonial America.(1) Most Southern New England cesspools have been around more than half a century and many are simply a joke. For decades, cesspools consisted of emptied 55-gallon oil drums punched with holes on the sides and buried under a foot or two of earth—often less. Even with technological improvements over the years, cesspools are an outdated, unacceptable form of wastewater treatment. 

Cesspool Phase-out

The Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007 requires that all cesspools located within 200 feet of tidal water areas, public drinking water wells or surface drinking water supplies be inspected by January 1, 2012. Failed cesspools are required to be abandoned and replaced within one year. All cesspools in these areas must be replaced by January 1, 2013. If a cesspool is located in a sewered area, then a connection to the sewer must be made within a year from the time of a property sale. If the owner fails to connect to the sewer within that time, they will be subject to sewer use fees.

In addition, the cesspool phase-out bill includes a state-wide provision in every contract for a purchase and sale of real estate served by a cesspool to provide a 10-day period in which a potential buyer may conduct an inspection before becoming obligated under the contract. In this case, DEM regulations require any failed cesspool to be replaced within one year.

"Not in Our Backyards"

Meet Rhode Island residents who cleaned up their act for the health of the Bay.

It is as pretty a spot as you might find on the Bay. The modest cedar-shingled home Bob and Helen Hawkinson had just purchased in Warren, right on the Warren River at the end of Bridge Street, offered a spectacular Bay view. But the side yard revealed a dirty little secret. Bob, an engineer, had every reason to believe the concrete cap marked the location of a pump that connected the house to a town sewer line just up the hill toward Water Street. Instead he discovered a cesspool.

“I was quite upset,” Hawkinson recalls. “I’m an engineer and have worked with various housing projects, and so I’m familiar with the process. It didn’t take long to get everyone involved and straighten it out.”

For Hawkinson, there was no option other than tying into the sewer. A boat owner who has lived in Rhode Island for 35 years, he knew that the cesspool was bad news for Narragansett Bay—not to mention his neighborhood.

The cesspool hadn’t been in use while he and Helen spent a year or so renovating the house. There wasn’t any flow, Bob said, until they moved in. Upon discovering the cesspool, he was sickened by the thought of raw sewage making its way to the Bay—literally a dozen steps away. “I knew where it was going,” he says. “It was easy to tell, because everything was downhill to the river and it couldn’t flow anywhere else.”

It’s not pleasant to think about, but too many homeowners with cesspools rationalize that the Bay is big enough to absorb the pollution that seeps from their property. But not the Hawkinsons, members of Save The Bay since sometime in the 1970s. “It’s the old thing of all the parts coming together,” Bob said. “When you have all these little parts coming together it’s a real mess for the Bay.”

Cesspool Crusaders: Bob and Helen Hawkinson, Woody Kemp, Rosemary Hobson, Lynne Kemp.

His neighbors Woody and Lynne Kemp concur. Woody and Bob, who serve on the Warren Harbor Commission, are doing everything they can to eliminate cesspools and encourage sewer tie-ins. Rosemary Hobson of Coventry, who joined the Hawkinsons and Kemps for our cover photo, replaced her cesspool in 2000. She is one of dozens of people who responded to a Save The Bay query for people who have made the switch for a better Bay.

In the Oakland Beach section of Warwick, Dennis Charpentier was among the first in line when the city extended sewer lines to his neighborhood. “I took advantage of the low-interest loan offered for installation and completed the sewer tie-in using one of the local companies,” he says. “I was not having a particular problem with my cesspool, but saw the advantages of a washing machine and garbage disposal. In addition, I have the peace of mind knowing that the leeching of my cesspool does not reach Brushneck Cove, which is one lot away from my property."

“I believe that the tying in of all properties on the Oakland Beach peninsula would prove beneficial to the water quality of East Greenwich and Narragansett Bay. I challenge all residents to tie in to the sewer system as soon as possible and further challenge the municipalities to require tie-in within the next five years.”

Nancy Reynolds of Potowomut replaced her cesspool a year ago with a new septic system because she knew that even though her cesspool was passing inspection, it was still harmful—and destined to become more of a threat to the Bay’s health.

“We will probably never get sewer hook-ups, so we felt it was best to have a state-of-the-art system in order to protect the environment as much as possible,” she says. “Narragansett Bay is RI’s most important and most fragile resource. The average citizen cannot affect all of the influences on the health of the Bay, but we can support Save The Bay and clean up our own act.”