R.I. worries about pollution in water as floods recede

PROVIDENCE, R.I. —The sun is out. The water level is falling. Traffic is starting to flow again. While things appear to be looking up in Rhode Island, the state hit hardest this week by three days of rain and record flooding, health and environmental officials warn there's still danger below the surface.

Raw sewage, garbage and oil are swirling around in the muddy floodwaters, creating a threat to people as the contaminants make their way toward and then down New England's rivers and streams. In Rhode Island, the flooding stands to introduce pollutants into Narragansett Bay, the ocean inlet whose nooks and crannies give the tiny state more than 400 miles of coastline, and disrupt the important shellfishing industry there.

"The impact on this infrastructure is unprecedented," said Curt Spalding, administrator of the New England region of the Environmental Protection Agency. "It's a very rare occurrence when wastewater plants are completely disabled by flood, literally taken out and become inoperable. This is a very serious matter."

The flooding has forced hundreds of people from their homes and businesses, and Gov. Don Carcieri said Thursday that damage could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But there are bright spots: A stretch of I-95, a major East Coast link, that had closed for days reopened to traffic. State offices reopened, and public colleges and universities were set to do the same today.

President Obama issued an emergency declaration for the state earlier in the week and made an unscheduled visit Thursday to Massachusetts, where nearly 3,500 residents have already applied for federal emergency flood assistance. He also called Carcieri on Thursday night and offered as much federal help as necessary to deal with Rhode Island's massive flooding.

And in some good news from Connecticut, emergency management officials said the Connecticut River is expected to crest about 1 1/2 feet below major flood levels.

Even before the flooding began in earnest, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, anticipating the danger, closed most of the bay and southern coastal ponds to shellfishing until further notice. Fishing was restricted in parts of Massachusetts, as well.

Still, while serious in the short term, the problems are expected to dissipate within weeks as the floodwater continues to recede.