Climate & Social Justice

Still-Contaminated Gorham Site Frustrates Residents


PROVIDENCE — Most of the two dozen or so Reservoir Triangle neighborhood residents in attendance bit their tongues when it came to the still-sensitive subject of Alvarez High School — formerly Adelaide High School — even though they were gathered in its cafeteria.

After all, last week’s community-organized meeting was arranged to discuss the decades-long remediation of the entire 37-acre Gorham silver manufacturing site. Besides, as one seemingly annoyed resident noted, the hastily built school already has spent the past two years sitting atop soil contaminated with industrial pollutants.

As a result of the various manufacturing processes used at the Gorham factory for nearly a century, much of the land and water on the Adelaide Avenue site were significantly contaminated. Chemical solvents, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), that were used to clean metal and machine parts in the factory seeped into the land and created underground pools. These chemicals are volatile organic compounds, meaning they can turn into a gas that people might breathe in. They also are known to be human carcinogens.

The cove of Mashapaug Pond directly behind the high school also shows high levels of heavy metals such as lead and compounds such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, making it unsafe to eat fish from the pond, swim or come into direct contact with the water or soil at the bottom of the pond, according to the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, which has been working with Reservoir Triangle residents for the past few months.

“Many people in our neighborhood are new residents and they have no idea there used to be a factory right next door,” said Diane Rose, a Reservoir Triangle resident for six years and one of the organizers of last Tuesday’s public meeting. “There are no signs to warn people there’s a cleanup happening. There are gaps in the fences. People have been using parts of the site that haven’t been cleaned up to play with their kids. This is unacceptable.”

After two years of silence from the parties responsible for the investigation and clean up of the polluted property — the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Textron Inc. and the city of Providence — neighbors of the former Gorham Manufacturing Co. invited key members of the responsible parties to Alvarez High School for what turned out to be a civil interrogation.

Residents said they are concerned about a lack of warning signs — in both English and Spanish — at the four-parcel site, gaps in the fences and open gates that are supposed to prevent access to still-contaminated sections and a lack of communication regarding the remaining cleanup that needs to take place.

They hope the recent meeting spurs the responsible parties into action.

“The people living next to the Gorham site have played an incredibly important role throughout the clean-up process for a number of years, pointing out problems that the authorities weren’t even aware of,” said Amelia Rose, director of the Environmental Justice League. “Resident oversight and involvement is critical to making sites like Gorham safe both during and after a cleanup happens, so that the land can be put back into good use for the benefit of the community.”

Tom Deller, director of the Providence Redevelopment Agency and the city’s Department of Planning and Development, told residents that signs have been ordered and gaps in the fences have been repaired. He also said the city is looking for funding to bring some of the contaminated sections up to residential/recreation standards.

Controversial matter
The cleanup of the Gorham site is a complex situation that has been fraught with controversy for years, intensifying in 2006 when the city decided to build a public high school on the property.

Two years after Alvarez High School opened, neighborhood residents said they are frustrated by how quickly a new school was built on the site while some of the property’s other 33 acres remain uncapped and contaminated.

They are particularly concerned about an uncovered mound of contaminated debris that sits less than 20 yards from the new high school and the dust from it that is blown about the neighborhood.

Joe Martella, the DEM’s senior sanitary engineer, told those gathered that the pile has been tested and contains some contamination, but is clean enough to use as a fill material. He said the plan is to spread the material from the mound to level the site, which will then be capped with clean soil or pavement, depending on the future use of the property.

In 2006, the DEM approved a clean-up work plan for the site — referred to as Parcel C in legal documents and reports — but it was never implemented because the YMCA withdrew its plans to build on the unremediated property.

The YMCA has been asked to give up its rights to the parcel, but some far it has balked, according to Deller.

Plans for the currently contaminated site include ball fields, additional parking for the high school and housing, depending up whom is asked.

Ricardo Patino, who lives directly across from the new high school and Parcel C, said the focus should be on cleaning up the fenced-off site next to Alvarez High and less on its future use.

“That site needs to be remediated now, because we as residents face that problem every day,” he said. “We want a real plan for the parcel, but it needs to be cleaned up first.”

In addition to getting commitments from the city to replace signs and maintain the fences, residents also asked Textron and DEM to outline the remaining steps and timeline regarding the remediation of the two parcels — C and the cove — that are still significantly contaminated.

“We know a lot has been done to ensure the safety of the students and staff at the school, including installing a ventilation system and regular indoor air testing,” Patino said. “But by allowing some parts of the site to remain unremediated much longer only worsens the situation and creates more potential for exposure to the toxic chemicals we know are in the ground and water on the site.”

Textron and the DEM expect to unveil a remediation plan for the rest of the contaminated parcels this summer, according to Martella. A public comment period will be held, he said.

Polluted parcels
Parcel A includes the now-vacant Stop & Shop building and three other commercial spaces — two of which have tenants, a church and a check-cashing agent — a large parking lot and a now-closed gas station.

This was first part of the site to be remediated and developed, as Textron, which bought the property in 1967, agreed to clean up the parcel to meet DEM’s industrial/commercial reuse standards.

In 2001 and ’02, 18,580 tons of petroleum-saturated soil were treated and then returned to the parcel. An additional 82 tons of soil contaminated with copper and/or lead were treated and returned.

There is a large perchloroethylene (PCE) groundwater plume under the Stop & Shop parking lot. The source of the plume is less than 150 feet southeast of the new high school. Since 2006, the plume has been treated by injecting a substance called sodium permanganate under the ground, which according to Steven Fischbach, a community lawyer with Rhode Island Legal Services, has proven ineffective.

DEM also required the installation of monitoring wells along Adelaide Avenue and along the border of the high school site to ensure no contaminated groundwater is moving off Parcel A.

Textron originally agreed to remediate Parcel B — the site of the new high school — up to industrial/commercial standards, but if the city wanted to build a school, it would have to bring the 4-acre parcel up to more strict residential standards. In 2007, the city violated DEM’s orders by starting development work before receiving approvals. The school opened in 2008.

Indoor air quality of the school, which enrolls about 600 students, is tested every three months to ensure there is no contamination. A sub-slab ventilation system also was installed to vent out any potential soil gas vapors coming from contaminated groundwater. No problems have been detected.

Fences behind Alvarez High School are supposed to keep the polluted Mashapaug Pond cove off-limits. While in operation, Gorham used a 4-acre company-owned cove on 70-acre Mashapaug Pond as a waste lagoon. The cove — referred to as Parcel D — was long ignored before dioxins and PCBs were found in sediment and fish tissue.

A highly toxic slag pile, with high levels of lead and copper, also was found on the banks of the cove. Under court order, Textron removed the slag pile — the only form of remediation that has been conducted on the parcel to date.

Silver metal
The manufacturing complex on Mashapaug Pond, near Providence’s border with Cranston, began production in 1890. At its height, the Gorham Manufacturing Co. had 30 buildings on the property and was one of the largest silver manufacturers in the world. It operated three shifts of 1,000 workers each.

Gorham’s various manufacturing processes included milling, forging, heat treating, plating, lacquering, polishing and degreasing.

Textron bought Gorham in 1967, hoping to integrate the plant’s silver capabilities into its electronics division. The plant was closed in 1986, when Textron sold the facility to the Winoker Group. The Winoker Group subsequently sold the facility to another group of investors, the Adelaide Development Corp., which in turn sold the facility to the Seaman Equity Group.

In 1990, Seaman defaulted on its taxes, and the city of Providence foreclosed. The city currently owns the property at 333 Adelaide Ave.

The property is bordered to the east by railroad tracks. Adelaide Avenue and a residential neighborhood bound the property to the south. To the north and west, the site is bordered by Mashapaug Pond. Groundwater beneath the former facility flows predominantly in a northerly direction and discharges into the cove.

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