Crews working deep under Providence are digging miles of tunnels to divert storm water and protect Narragansett Bay from pollution — an effort that Gov. Lincoln Chafee calls "the biggest project you'll never see."
On Tuesday, the Democratic governor donned safety goggles and a hard hat before being lowered 220 feet down a shaft to the tunnel's floor, where crews have already blasted through thousands of feet of bedrock. Chafee said he wanted to see the huge undertaking firsthand.
"It's just a monstrous project," Chafee said. "It's a solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable. We had to fix it. The engineering, what human beings can do, is really amazing."
When complete, the elaborate system of subterranean tunnels will divert and store water from storms to prevent it from overwhelming sewage treatment plants and sending significant amounts of pollutants into the bay. Once the rain stops, pumps will bring the storm water to the surface when it can be safely treated at the sewage plant.
With a price tag expected to surpass $1 billion, the project is one of the largest public works efforts in state history.
The work is being done by the Narragansett Bay Commission to comply with federal clean water mandates. The cost is being funded through sewer bills. While he acknowledges the hefty price tag, Chafee said the benefit to the state's environment and the economy will be worth it.
Tourism and the state's shell fishing industry all depend on the quality of Narragansett Bay. Beach closures and shell fishing restrictions are a common occurrence in Rhode Island after heavy rains.
Crews using giant boring machines have already completed the first phase of the project, which cost $350 million and involves a three-mile, 26-foot diameter stretch of tunnel under Providence.
Since that tunnel went online in 2008, more than 5 billion gallons of runoff has been captured and treated. When finished, the project aims to cut the number of overflows from 71 per year to four per year and reduce the amount of contaminated water going into the bay by 98 percent.
The project's second phase — with a $250 million price tag — is expected to be completed in about a year, according to Ray Marshall, executive director of the Narragansett Bay Commission. The third phase is expected to cost another $600 million and won't be completed until 2017.
Planning for the project began more than two decades ago and work began in 2001.
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