Public Health & Recreation

Rhode Island’s Pollution Problems Long in the Making


Most states in the Northeast are plagued by contaminated soil, polluted waters and abandoned properties rife with toxic waste. Centuries of incineration, smelting, metal plating, concrete manufacturing, etching, electroplating and the burning of fossil fuels has tainted, perhaps forever, New England’s air, soil and water.

Rhode Island, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, has endured a longer history of pollution than most states in New England and nationwide, and that has severely affected its famous water body.

Narragansett Bay and its watershed have a long history of exposure to contaminants. From industrial operations — many iron-making facilities, for example, sprang up around Narragansett Bay during the 18th century — to agriculture to coastal development, human activity along the bay’s coast and within its watershed have introduced a multitude of pollutants to the state’s most important ecological and economical resource.

The state’s legacy of pollution began with the development and dramatic growth of textile manufacturing. The waste generated by this industry, especially in the Blackstone River Valley, likely resulted in the first major increase in the addition of metals to Narragansett Bay, according to a 162-page University of Rhode Island report.

The damage these industrial toxins caused to the Ocean State’s most important watershed helped lead to the creation of Save The Bay 40 some years ago.

“Narragansett Bay has probably been subjected to metal pollution longer than any other estuary on the western side of the Atlantic,” Scott Nixon, of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, wrote in a 1995 report entitled “Metal Inputs to Narragansett Bay: A History and Assessment of Recent Conditions.” “Metal pollution in any significant extent is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution, and the New England textile industry had its beginnings with the introduction of Samuel Slater’s factory system in the textile mills on the Blackstone River.”

Pollution Revolution
In 1793, the opening of America’s first water-powered textile mill, on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This manufacturing triumph also gave Narragansett Bay a jump-start over many of the nation’s other estuaries in serving as a receptacle for industrial waste.

By 1971, the Audubon Society had labeled the Blackstone River “one of America’s most polluted rivers.”

The Woonasquatucket River also was heavily used by manufacturers, and has been profoundly altered by its industrial past, according to a study done in 2007 by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

In fact, industrial activities have historically been the largest source of toxic discharges into the Woonasquatucket River — 14 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) currently discharge into the river. Many of the streams feeding the river — which flows 19 miles from North Smithfield to downtown Providence, where it joins the Moshassuck River to form the Providence River — were dammed to create water supplies for industrial uses.

Today, the Woonasquatucket River watershed contains numerous State Hazardous Waste Sites (SHWS), Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) sites, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund sites.

In fact, DEM’s Office of Waste Management oversees the investigation and remediation of about 1,800 contaminated sites across the state, from underground storage tanks, leaking or sound, to Brownfield properties, which commonly are contaminated with hazardous materials and petroleum.

All reported toxic spills or contaminations in Rhode Island are submitted to the EPA for review by the Superfund program — the federal government’s program to “clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.”

If these reported sites meet Superfund criteria, they are placed on a priority list. Thirteen Rhode Island sites, including one at the Central Landfill in Johnston, are currently on the Superfund list.

Federal, state, local and industry initiatives undertaken to correspond with the federal Clean Water Act have resulted in significant reductions in industrial pollutants since the 1970s. Today, non-industrial sources, such as commercial and household hazardous wastes, motor-vehicle emissions and stormwater runoff are increasingly significant sources of contamination.

By the mid-1800s, however, Rhode Island was the nation’s most heavily industrialized state, as the wool and cotton industries were both dominated by factories along the Blackstone River. The town of Pawtucket alone supported 29 cotton mills.

The Blackstone River soon became a convenient site for disposing of industrial waste and sewage from the ever-expanding population of the valley.

Mills, factories, and other industries discharged toxic chemicals and sewage into the Narragansett Bay and its estuaries, and there were reported cases of people fainting from the stench of decomposing human sewage in the Providence River.

Textile manufacturers discharged dyes, leather and metalworking factories discharged heavy metals and toxic compounds, and woodworking companies discharged varnish, solvents and paints. Most of these facilities also used some type of volatile or semi-volatile organic compound with which to clean machinery and tools. These compounds, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), are known carcinogens. Many of these pollutants can still be found in river sediments today, more than 100 years after they were released.

The good news, according to Nixon’s report, is that anthropogenic inputs of metals, such as copper, chromium and lead, into Narragansett Bay are lower today, mostly because of changes in the state’s economic base — most of the mills and factories have long since closed and tourism now reigns supreme — and state regulations based on the 1972 Clean Water Act have led to major reductions in industrial discharges. However, there is still the problem of metal deposits lingering in sediment. They have been collecting there for centuries and can be stirred up by severe storms or dredging.

“Large amounts of metals were discharged into the bay,” Nixon said during an interview in his office this summer. “These sediments gradually got buried and the concentration in the water must have gone down quite a bit, but we don’t know what the ecological impact of that was.”

Heavy Metal Introduction
On April 21, 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano — the Jamestown bridge bears his name — brought his ship Dauphin into Newport Harbor. It may well be that with the dropping of the Dauphine’s anchor, the first anthropogenic metals entered the bay.

Metals, such as arsenic, barium, beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc, and other pollutants have been swimming in its waters ever since.

“During the first 150 years or more that pollutant metals were accumulating in Narragansett Bay and its tributaries there was little awareness that these byproducts of industrial growth and social prosperity were entering the bay or that they might come to pose a threat to the organisms living there,” Nixon wrote in the report. “Specific attempts to reduce the emission of at least some metals to the atmosphere began in the 1950s and 1960s, but legislative requirements for industrial pretreatment of wastewaters to reduce metal emissions did not come until the 1980s.”

Metals are released into the environment by a variety of manufacturing activities. The production of cement, for example, releases chromium, nickel, lead and zinc into the atmosphere.

Once released into the environment, even if they are widely dispersed, many of these metals become serious environmental problems. Heavy metals, such as lead, silver and cadmium, are toxic to aquatic organisms even in minuscule amounts. High levels of toxic metals from historic inputs still lie buried in deeper sediments.

In portions of the Upper Bay, concentrations of some metals and other toxic pollutants still exceed standards set to protect aquatic life. Some of these pollutants come from urban runoff. Motor vehicles, for example, are a source of copper, lead, cadmium and chromium, as well as hydrocarbons such as oil.

In terms of significant impacts to Narragansett Bay and human health, however, contamination of sediments and water bodies with metals and other toxic compounds now ranks behind the problems of bacterial pollution, nutrient overload and hypoxia. 

Concerns about air pollution are now focused on man’s output of greenhouse gases — the three main offenders being carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — from the burning of fossil fuels, but the emphasis in earlier years was on smoke, dust and soot.

Coal began being collected on Aquidneck Island by at least the mid-1700s, and by the early 1800s, the first commercial deposits of anthracite coal were discovered and exploited near the Portsmouth shoreline. This coal proved difficult to burn in home and industrial furnaces, however, and it played little or no role in meeting the emerging energy needs of Providence and the Blackstone Valley. Instead, much of this coal was exported or used in local brick manufacturing.

But many former factories in Rhode Island burned better-grade coal for heat and power — the burning of coal releases heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury — and as coal consumption increased, dense smoke became an increasing nuisance and a public health issue.

Providence appointed an inspector of smoke in 1904, and a stronger state law went into effect in 1913 that allowed only “light gray” smoke to be discharged for six minutes out of every hour.

Industrial Wastelands
As Rhode Island’s manufacturing industry continued to expand, Pawtucket Village was fast becoming one of the most important industrial areas in the United States. Skilled blacksmiths forged anchors, molded large iron screws and manufactured cannons. And by the 1830s, Rhode Island featured 10 foundries and 30 machine shops employing some 1,250 men. Most of this metal industry was adjacent to the cotton and wool mills in the Blackstone and Pawtuxet valleys and in Providence.

Larger metal working firms in North Providence, Cumberland and Smithfield became noted for their production of screws, nuts, bolts, muskets, tools and textile machinery. Less than a century later, the Providence Tool Co. was filling large gun orders for the Turkish government, and Brown & Sharpe had become the world’s largest manufacturer of machine tools.

During the dramatic growth of Rhode Island’s textile/manufacturing industry, zinc, cadmium and other metals were used as mordants — substances used to set dyes on fabrics or tissue — in the dyeing process to color fabrics. Mercury and arsenic were ingredients of pesticides often used to prevent insect damage to wool and cotton. But the biggest use of metals was the production of the machinery to run these water-powered factories. Tin, iron, copper and pewter were used to make tools and parts. The metals used in this work often escaped into the air, soil and water, or were buried as a means of simplistic waste disposal.

By the start of the 20th century, Providence had become the world’s largest jewelry-manufacturing center, meaning another pollution-intensive industry would soon impair Narragansett Bay. At its height, the “jewelry capital of the world” featured upwards of 150 different companies.

“Ironically, Narragansett Bay now contains far more gold and silver than it did when European explorers first came searching for precious metals,” Nixon wrote in his report.

Many heavy metals were used during Providence’s era as the leading manufacture of costume jewelry. A lot of costume jewelry is electroplated, a process that uses cyanide and produces a waste, containing heavy metals, that is difficult to handle and has been known to contaminate soil, groundwater and stormwater when improperly handled.

During the pinnacle of the city’s jewelry-making boon, Providence also boasted the largest silver-plate manufacturer in the United States — the Gorham Manufacturing Co. — and the American Screw Co., Providence Tool Co. and Nicholson File Co. had the largest plants of their kind in the country.

Gorham’s manufacturing complex on Mashapaug Pond, near Providence’s border with Cranston, began production in 1890. At its height, the company had 30 buildings on the 37-acre property and was one of the largest silver manufacturers in the world. The various manufacturing processes included milling, forging, plating, lacquering, polishing and degreasing.

As a result of the various manufacturing conducted at the Gorham facility for nearly a century, much of the land and water on the site were significantly contaminated by heavy metals and chemical solvents, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). The solvents used to clean metal and machine parts seeped into the land and created underground plumes of pollution and contaminated groundwater that flows downhill into Mashapaug Pond.

These known human carcinogens are known as volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, meaning they could become gases that people might breathe. No detailed cancer study of the Gorham site has ever been conducted, according to state officials.

In fact, more than two decades since the factory closed, the South Providence site is still contaminated with industrial pollutants and continues to tarnish the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood.

The cleanup of the Gorham site — like so many others around the state and nationwide — has been fraught with controversy for years, intensifying in 2006 when the city decided to build a public high school on a section of the property.

Today, the site features an uncovered stockpile of contaminated soil that sits less than 20 yards from Alvarez High School and has only been tested once for toxins.

“As one of the major manufacturing centers in the country, Rhode Island and the Blackstone River Valley participated fully in the industrialization of the United States,” Nixon wrote in his 1995 report. “While that process began earlier here than anywhere else in America, the environmental impact of industrialization, at least in terms of metal pollution, was probably not large until the mid-1800s. From the Civil War on, the development and spread of steam power, electrical power and the internal combustion engine supported an unprecedented time of industrial expansion, and from the Civil War until the turn of the century, Rhode Island was the most industrialized state in the country.”

Wasteful Discharges
Nearly all manufacturing facilities release metals into wastewater. Before 1870, however, there was no sewer system in Providence, which at the time had become a manufacturing hub, so these facilities likely ran untreated effluents directly into the nearest water source.

The problem of polluted runoff finding its way into streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and eventually Narragansett Bay intensified as roads, sidewalks, parking lots and roofs replaced trees, plants and open space. Pollutants, via stormwater runoff, are washed more quickly — and with less natural filtration — into sensitive water bodies.

In fact, for decades the most cost-effective solution to soil contamination was to pave over it. While this may have limited human exposure to toxin-tainted soil, these impervious surfaces are now rushing polluted runoff into various water bodies and contributing to flooding problems across the state.

Providence began building sewers in 1871, and began expanding the system greatly two decades later. At first, the system simply collected wastewater and runoff and carried it — untreated — to various discharge points along the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket, Seekonk and Providence rivers. It wasn’t until the early 1890s that the system began to carry the sewage away from the harbor for discharge further down the Providence River, at Fields Point. The effluent released at Fields Point was often untreated.

Since Providence had a combined system, increasing amounts of metals and other pollutants in urban runoff were also being discharged at Fields Point, according to Nixon. His report also concluded that the largest amount of stormwater runoff was released through numerous outfalls further up the Providence and Seekonk rivers.

Prior to the development of Providence’s sewer system, it seems reasonable to assume that untreated industrial effluents entered the urban portions of the rivers and streams individually, through numerous small discharge pipes, according to Nixon’s research. After 1870, the capture of effluents from increasing numbers of individual manufacturing establishments in the sewer system and the discharge of ever larger volumes of effluent without any treatment at a smaller number of locations around Providence Harbor probably resulted in much greater fluxes of metals directly into the Seekonk and Providence rivers, he noted.

With the introduction of chemical precipitation in 1901, the Fields Point treatment plant began to produce large quantities of sludge. At first, this material was drained and used as fill on the site, but after seven years, Providence was forced to find a new disposal area.

In the summer of 1908, the city scow Pomeganset took the first load of sludge into Narragansett Bay and dumped it in deep water south of Prudence Island. This dumpsite was used continuously until 1949, when the city began to burn the sludge.

During the 41 years that the Prudence Island dumpsite was used, sludge containing some 137,400 tons of dry solids was discarded into the middle of the bay, according to Nixon’s report.

“If the metal content of this material was even roughly similar to contemporary Providence sludge, the dumping added large amounts of metals to an undeveloped part of the bay,” he wrote.

The disposal of sludge through incineration, followed by the burying of the ashes, didn’t eliminate the possibility that some of the metals contained in the sludge would find their way back into the bay through direct deposition from the atmosphere and in stormwater runoff.

Sludge, however, wasn’t the only waste material incinerated. In the mid-1920s, Providence began operating incinerators to dispose of rubbish and garbage. Between 1951 and 1959, four times more garbage and almost three times more rubbish than sewage sludge was incinerated, according to Nixon. Smaller communities around Narragansett Bay burned garbage and rubbish in open dumps.

Passage of federal clean air legislation in 1970 closed the Fields Point incinerator and forced Providence to switch to landfill disposal of all solid wastes.

The smelting and working of metals and the incineration of waste, however, weren’t the only sources of metal emissions. The combustion of fuels in the rapidly growing cities of the 19th century released a variety of toxic materials, including lead, which was strongly influenced by the growing consumption of leaded gasoline after 1923.

In fact, since World War II, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been developed, and they are routinely released in large amounts into the environment or add hard-to-pronounce synthesized substances into our food without first fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health and usually without strenuous testing.

Copper, lead, and zinc contributions from automotive coolant dumping and oil dumping have impacted watersheds. It’s not uncommon to find used motor oil and coolant containers in parking lots, abandoned properties and commercial areas. They often end up in some body of water, pushed there by a surge of polluted stormwater runoff. Appliances and automotive debris — tires, batteries and engine blocks — are routinely pulled out of many local waterways. Metals and other pollutants often leach from this junk.

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  1. A very interesting and thorough review! For more recent information on toxics specifically, you might want to check out the 2007 study produced by Dave Murray of Brown University. It's on the website of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program ( and includes a fantastic set of maps showing changes in the physical properties and chemical characteristics of surface sediments throughout the Bay, including the Seekonk River. NBEP publications also address some of the other topics you cover, including nutrients.

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