STB: This project has been years in the making. When is the earliest date you can recall there being a discussion of the need to dramatically expand capacity?

MARSHALL: When the Narragansett Bay Commission was created in 1980, Governor Garrahy and the General Assembly did so to take over the failing Providence Sewage Treatment Facility at Field’s Point and also to address the issues of Combined Sewer Overflows. So, it’s fair to say that this agency has had this mandate since the day we were created.

STB: NBC was found in violation of the Clean Water Act and that started a stakeholder process to develop a CSO Abatement Program. In the opinion of some, there was a less-expensive, short-term alternative that might have satisfied the EPA. How did NBC gain consensus to go beyond a minimum quick-fix?

MARSHALL: The people who were involved in the stakeholders process—including Save the Bay---showed an amazing level of commitment to the health of the Bay. This group of 40+ individuals---representing neighborhood groups, professional groups, municipalities, advocacy organizations, and more---met for three hours every month for eighteen months, until they were satisfied that they had reviewed all the possible options for addressing the CSO problem. In all, they looked closely at seventeen alternatives, weighed the pros and cons of each, and decided that the tunnel project would best accommodate the health of Narragansett Bay, the recreational needs of the state, and the economic cost paid by the ratepayers of the Narragansett Bay Commission.

STB: Once the will was there and financing was in place, what were the most difficult hurdles the project encountered?

MARSHALL: Well, the financing continues to be a struggle. The project is an unfunded federal mandate, which means that the federal government can require the NBC to build the project, and can fine us if we don’t complete it on time, but does not contribute any funding to it. Rhode Island’s congressional delegation has been very supportive of the project, but the truth is that there is no national-level commitment to clean water infrastructure funding. Therefore the burden of paying for this project has fallen on the ratepayers of the NBC, even though the benefits of the project will likely be realized by people who live down Bay.

STB: Were there new technologies that came along that had a positive effect on cost and the time it would take to engineer and build the system?

MARSHALL: The greatest positive effect on the budget is really due to the outstanding team of engineers, contractors, construction managers and project managers working together. Whenever the construction hit a snag---as happens in every construction project---the team galvanized their forces to seek a quick and cost-effective resolution. So, it was really coordination and management, rather than technology, that shined in this project.

STB: You must be proud that the project has stayed on schedule and on budget…and off the front page of the Providence Journal, if you know what we mean. This should not be lost on most Rhode Islanders.

MARSHALL: You’re right. We call this “The Biggest Project You’ll Never See.” The fact that 90% of the construction occurred underground has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the project didn’t interfere, for the most part, with anyone’s commute, but on the other hand, so many people still don’t know about this tunnel that’s been built right under their feet!

STB: The NBC says that when the CSO project is online and all facilities are operational there will be a 68% reduction in shellfish closings in the upper Bay and a 95% reduction in the lower Bay. What will be the impacts on beach closures and might we see some upper Bay beaches reopened after having been deemed unsafe for years?

MARSHALL: The goal of the Clean Water Act is for all navigable waters in the US to be fishable and swimmable, and we think the CSO Project will help us to meet this goal. It’s not, however, the entire solution. Beaches will still be susceptible to non-point source pollution, from overfertilized lawns, failing septic systems, bird and animal waste, and other sources. And those are sources that no amount of tunnels will fix.

STB: Development, presumably, will continue in Greater Providence. That means more sewer connections and, with houses and buildings filling open space, more stormwater runoff. A time will come when we will have to revisit the question of CSO capacity. What are the plans for Phase II of the CSO Abatement project?

MARSHALL: Phase II, which is a much smaller phase in scope than Phase I, is already in the design stage. Phase II will involve the construction of two near surface interceptors that run along the Seekonk and Woonasquatucket Rivers, which will catch the overflows on those rivers, and transport that flow to the CSO tunnel. The Phase I tunnel was sized with that additional capacity in mind. We’re planning to start construction on Phase II in 2010, with completion four years later. In Phase III, we’ll look to build another tunnel in Pawtucket that will capture the overflows into the Blackstone/Seekonk rivers.

But, even with all this infrastructure building, we still think it’s important for developers in the area to incorporate green building practices. We have new strategic permitting requirements for developers that encourage low impact development and smart growth strategies in new construction as well as in the exiting built environment. We think that these are crucial factors to effective urban stormwater management, and will help us to make the most of this fantastic clean water investment the NBC ratepayers have made.

A great example is our award-winning Stormwater Management Program that has resulted in eliminating approximately three million gallons of stormwater from entering the combined system---this is effectively a 5% increase in the capacity of the CSO Phase I tunnel at no cost to the ratepayers, and this benefit will continue to grow as additional developer take part in the program.


Photo courtesy of Narragansett Bay Commission