WOONSOCKET – City officials were joined by state and federal lawmakers last Friday, Sept. 10, to celebrate the opening of a new $56 million water treatment plant that operators say will make Woonsocket’s water among the best in the state.
The plant, located off Jillson Avenue at one of the highest points in the city, began producing water on July 8. After an extensive 30-day test period during which the plant had to meet standards set by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, it declared ready to service the city’s primary water supply.
“This is state-of-the-art. It’s technology,” said Director of Public Works Steven D’Agostino.
Though residents may not immediately notice the difference, D’Agostino said the water flowing through Woonsocket’s pipes is cleaner than it was three months ago. Along with allowing a more efficient process, the new treatment plant removes manganese from the water, a trace mineral that can pose health risks in high amounts. It also recycles more water, recapturing about 5 percent of all discharge from the filtering process to return to the system as clean water.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the old system and the new, however, is what happens to the contaminants removed from the water. For more than a decade, the Manville Road plant was in violation of RIDEM standards due to the fact it dumped discharge from the cleaning process directly into the Blackstone River. With the new plant, operators explained, the discharge will go into the sewage treatment system.
“I am extremely happy with it,” D’Agostino said.
City officials shared that view on Friday, celebrating the new plant in a morning of tours and speeches outside the multi-level facility. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said it was “an important day for the city” and remarked how fortunate current residents are that previous lawmakers had the foresight to purchase the Woonsocket Reservoirs as a source of clean drinking water.
“We’ve continued along with other administrations in purchasing the land around the reservoirs in order to have that watershed protected,” she said.
City Council President Daniel Gendron agreed, calling the water supply “the most valuable product that this city of Woonsocket has.”
Though the project officially broke ground in 2018, planning for the current plant began in 2011, when then-Mayor Leo Fontaine appointed a Water Advisory Board tasked with finding a location. The city purchased the Jillson Avenue parcel in 2012 for $390,000, clearing the way for relocating its water treatment facilities up the hill from the Manville Road plant.
The final contract cost for the new plant was $56,752,000. D’Agostino received high praise on Friday for negotiating the amount down from an original bid of $61,388,000 along with overseeing the project from the city’s perspective over the past three years.
“A sign of a good leader is someone that surrounds themselves with good people,” said City Councilor James Cournoyer, who served as chairman of the Water Advisory Board, calling D’Agostino’s hiring by Baldelli-Hunt the “best decision in seven years.”
Also present were representatives of AECOM, the project engineer; CH Nickerson, the general contractor; and CDM Smith, the engineering consultant. Suez, a multinational utility company, has a 20-year contract to operate the plant and has been operating the old plant since 2018.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse also attended the ceremony, praising the new plant as a successful example of a federal, local and state partnership. The plant was funded with a $55 million loan from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, which exists partly on federal funding. On Monday, the RI Infrastructure Bank announced another round of refinancing that will return $599,000 in interest savings to the city.
“It’s exciting when we fight for this money in Congress to see it come through to projects like this,” Whitehouse said.
Rounding out the guests of honor for the day was Richard Fazzio, a 96-year-old World War II veteran from the city, who raised the flag outside the treatment facility before the ribbon cutting.
D’Agostino said the city has paid $54 million for the project to date. Contractors are still in the process of disconnecting the old plant on Manville Road. Once complete, D’Agostino said the city will put out a request-for-proposals to dismantle the tanks at the former facility.
“It’ll be a clean site in another year or so,” he said.
At the new plant, the work may not be completely finished. Baldelli-Hunt on Friday pointed to the cleared land around the facility that city officials have previously targeted as a potential solar farm location.
“Certainly there’s some priceless land out there that I think would make a great location for some solar arrays,” she said.