WOONSOCKET – The demolition company whose work at an old mill site was blamed for causing a major sewage spill into the Blackstone River last week did not have an active “Dig Safe” clearance for the job, as required by state law, city officials say.
A notice alleging a violation by Coventry Building & Wrecking was sent to the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers Tuesday, said Michael Debroisse, the city's solid waste superintendent.
Debroisse said the company was doing demolition work at the defunct Seville Dyeing Company when a piece of excavation equipment ruptured an underground sewer pipe Friday afternoon. At the time, the company was razing what was left of the long-vacant textile plant, heavily damaged in an arson fire on Feb. 27.
Up to 920,000 gallons of partially treated sewage may have poured into the Blackstone before a neighbor noticed the spill and it was contained, more than two days later, the state Department of Environmental Management says.
Any company or individual planning to do excavation work is required by law to notify the Woburn, Mass.-based Dig Safe System, Inc. in advance. Dig Safe uses the information to notify utility operators of the impending work, to give them a chance to mark the location of fixtures in the construction zone.
The idea is to lessen the risk that a piece of construction equipment will interfere with gas lines, electrical cables, sewer mains and other types of hidden utility infrastructure – with potentially disastrous results.
“Anytime anyone digs or excavates on public or private property they're required to call Dig Safe,” said Lisa Powers, a spokeswoman for the organization. Support from utility companies enables Dig Safe to provide the notification service free throughout New England, where the five states all observe various enforcement standards.
In Rhode Island, the DPUC is responsible for investigating violations, said Tom Kogut, a spokesman for the agency. Violators can be fined $350 for a first offense, but the paper trail of the infraction can also be used to support civil claims for damages.
“We have not received any notice of probable violation from the city of Woonsocket yet, but if we do, we'll investigate it,” said Kogut.
Debroisse said the city intends to seek compensation from Coventry Building & Wrecking for cleanup and containment, but the losses are still being calculated.
Debroisse said Veolia North America, the company that runs the city-owned Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, ran the containment operation.
Basically, said Debroisse, the city hired four private cesspool contractors to capture sewage running toward the broken main by intercepting it at the nearest inflowing manhole. The trucks worked in rotation, so that when one was filled, it discharged its load into the nearest outflow manhole while another truck took its place at the inflow manhole.
That portion of the operation stopped sewage from flowing out of the ruptured, 8-inch clay pipe so that another company could patch the main, said Debroisse. For that part of the job, the city used its on-retainer contractor, Boyle & Fogarty Construction, which finished up Monday.
“It was disgusting down there, but Veolia did an awesome job for the city – all their local reps and workers,” said Debroisse.
The spill is also under investigation by DEM. The agency had issued an advisory against swimming or eating fish from the river after learning of the spill Sunday night, but the alert was lifted Tuesday morning, according to Angelo Liberti, chief of surface water protection.
Debroisse said that his research indicates that Coventry Building & Wrecking may have obtained Dig Safe authorization for work at the site in April, but such clearances are only active for 60 days. There is no evidence the company renewed or reapplied to Dig Safe, as required, so he filed a notice of violation.
The Call was unable to reach representatives of Coventry Building & Wrecking for comment on Tuesday.