Swifts Beach residents demand answers on sewer project

Jan 27, 2023

Residents of Swifts Beach, who for months have sought details about the controversial $3 million plan to install grinder pumps in 130 neighborhood homes at their owners’ expense, left Thursday, Jan. 26’s Sewer Commission meeting with few of their questions answered. 

Swifts Beach residents responded with incredulity and even laughter as Sewer Commission Chair Jim Giberti answered questions which residents previously submitted in writing. Attendees Michael and Mary Raskin were among those who did not feel that the Sewer Commission answered their questions transparently. 

“All the obstructionism and failure to answer pretty reasonable questions, it almost sounds like there’s something shady going on,” Michael said. “If everything’s on the up and up, why not give us everything we’re asking for and be transparent?”

The controversy began in 2016, when a sewer pipe collapsed under Wankinco Avenue. Instead of replacing the pipe, the town decided to take the less expensive approach of repairing it and installing the grinder pumps.

At Thursday’s meeting, Giberti blamed the pipe’s collapse on residents not disconnecting their sump pumps while the lining of the pipe was curing, echoing earlier comments made by Water Pollution Control Facility Director Guy Campinha. 

Since most homes in Swifts Beach do not have basements, Mary called the focus on sump pumps “a big distraction.”

As the name suggests, grinder pumps grind solid waste to make it easier for sewer systems to handle.

When asked why the town allowed the lining of a collapsed sewer pipe, Giberti said, “It was determined it could be lined.”

The homeowners will be expected to pay for the installation of the pumps, an expense which could range from $400 to $4,000 per homeowner, not counting increased electricity costs. 

Giberti said that the town might help homeowners upgrade their electrical systems to accommodate the grinder pumps, and that the town is currently looking for low-interest loans to help pay for them. 

If homeowners do not pay for the pumps, which will be installed starting this spring, their homes will be condemned. Some residents of Swifts Beach are planning to move away and sell their homes because they cannot afford the grinder pumps.

“I’m just floored that this is going to be happening to us without any say,” Mary said.

The fact that the pumps are electric means that if the power goes out, residents will not be able to flush their toilets. 

If the project is deemed a success, grinder pumps will be installed in more homes in Swifts Beach and across Wareham.

“We’re the guinea pigs,” Michael said.

Many of the residents whose homes will be affected only live in Swifts Beach during the summer. Since they are not full-time residents of Wareham, they did not hear about the project when it was first proposed, nor could they vote on it when it was approved at Town Meeting last spring.

“There is very little information that has come forth from the town,” Michael said.

Giberti said that residents were notified of the project by the Town Meeting warrant and discussion at previous Sewer Commission meetings.

“We did everything that was required by law,” he said. “You probably wanted more, but that’s okay.”

Giberti promised concerned homeowners that no driveways would be excavated to build the pumps, but one Swifts Beach resident reported a contractor coming to her driveway unannounced as if preparing to do work on it. When she confronted him, he seemed surprised that she was not expecting him.

Giberti also said that the pumps will belong to the homeowners. This answer caused some confusion, because according to a “Homeowner’s Guide to Grinder Pump Systems” published by the Water Pollution Control Facility, the Facility owns the pumps. 

On Dec. 2, 2022, Michael J. O’Neill, an attorney representing the residents of Swifts Beach, sent a public records request to the town Records Officer and Sewer Department, requesting “bids, proposals, contracts, plans, votes, meeting minutes and presentations related to the project.”

On Jan. 20, O’Neill sent a letter to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, saying that his records request was ignored and asking the office to order the town to release the records. 

The letter alleges that the town would send O’Neill duplicate meeting minutes rather than the requested documents. In one alleged case, O’Neill received 448 pages. 222 were blank and 193 were duplicates, leaving only 33 pages of new material.

“The town has kept the residents in the dark,” O’Neill’s letter read. 

On Jan. 24, O’Neill sent a letter to Town Administrator Derek Sullivan claiming that the town has “withheld information” and that the Sewer Commission’s lack of transparency “suggests wrongdoing.”

“Residents are angry, confused and annoyed at the town’s stonewalling,” O’Neill wrote. “Rumors about the project — that we have not been able to confirm or deny because the town has produced no information — are fueling this anger and confusion.”

The letter demanded all of the requested documents, a public in-person hearing to answer questions and “immediate outreach to residents who will be affected by this project.”

For months, Swifts Beach residents have wanted an in-person forum to answer their questions. That forum was supposed to be held at the Jan. 12 Sewer Commission meeting, but shortly before the meeting started, the Commission told residents that, according to the town, they could not answer any questions. 

“We do empathize with your concern,” Giberti said. “You will still have unanswered questions that we will address with you in a workshop form, so a reasonable discussion can be held.”

An exact date for the “workshop” has not yet been scheduled, but Giberti plans to hold it in February.

“This never should have happened,” he told residents. “I apologize for the communications issue and hope that we can move forward.” 

After the meeting, Giberti said he believed it went “fine.”

“I answered the questions that I received,” he said. “Because it’s something that people don’t like, they’re not getting the answers they want. It is what it is.”

“It appears that we’re avoiding these people,” said Sewer Commissioner Donna Bronk. “Are we avoiding these people?”