Opinion

Rhode Island, Like Planet, is Turning a Toxic Blue-Green as Climate Changes

Rhode Island isn’t a blue state. It’s a blue-green one, in honor of toxic bacteria that regularly closes beaches to swimming and other water bodies to recreational fun and puts public health in jeopardy.

In fact, we can stop labeling states as simply red or blue. They’re all turning shades of blue-green-red. Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae are rising sharply this summer in lakes, rivers, and streams across the United States, according to the Environmental Working Group’s ongoing tracking of algae outbreaks.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has counted 144 algae outbreaks from California to the Northeast so far this year, compared to 169 in all of last year.

This pollution problem isn’t restricted to fresh waters. Florida has been hit particularly hard by toxic algae this summer. A total of 267 tons of marine life, including 72 goliath groupers and a 21-foot whale shark, have washed up on Florida beaches since July, thanks to a catastrophic red tide.

Here in the Ocean State this summer the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) have recommended that the beach at Larkin Pond Campground in South Kingstown be closed to swimming after high bacteria counts were found in the water. Two other beaches on the pond — Camp Hoffman and Kingston’s Camp — were closed for the same reason.

Beaches at Echo Lake Campground in Glocester and Goddard Memorial State Park and the Kent County YMCA in Warwick have been off-limits to swimming.

The DEM has advised people to avoid contact with Mashapaug Pond and Roosevelt Lake in Providence. DOH has recommended the closing of Bonnet Shores Beach Club in Narragansett.

State officials have advised people to avoid contact with water from Turner Reservoir, Central Pond, Omega Pond, and the portion of Ten Mile River that flows between Turner Reservoir and Omega Pond.

In late July, the state agencies advised people to avoid contact with Slack Reservoir in Greenville because of a blue-green algae bloom. Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can produce toxins, including microcystins, that can harm humans and animals. These blooms are nurtured by an overload of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that wash into waters from over-fertilized lawns, agricultural operations, and combined sewer overflows.

On Aug 10, Third Beach in Middletown became the 29th Ocean State beach, both fresh and salt, to be closed to swimming this summer. Some beaches, such as Camp Grosvenor in North Kingstown, have been closed more than once. A few, such as Briar Point Beach in Coventry and Kingston’s Camp Beach, have been closed for more than 10 days this summer.

In moderation, algae provide balance for a healthy water ecosystem. However, climate change, nutrient pollution, development, and other manmade stresses are exacerbating a problem and causing blooms to develop earlier and stay longer.

A 2015 study found that humans are responsible for increased cyanobacteria growth.

Massive algal blooms, however, are just one of the many visible signs of global climate change currently playing out on the world stage: roaring wild fires out West; historic flooding up and down the East Coast; 12 tornadoes that stormed through central Iowa during one week last month; the number of “marine heat waves” roughly doubled between 1982 and 2016; Australia struggling with devastating drought; 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers have passed their sustainability tipping points; a sixth mass extinction has seen billions of populations of animals lost in recent decades.

These happenings are a collective harbinger of the new normal.

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines potential climate feedbacks that could push the planet into a “hothouse” state.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2018 is on pace to be the fourth-hottest year on record. Only three other years have been hotter: 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Another recent study, published in IOPscience, suggests that to avoid a 2-degree Celsius global increase in temperature all existing proposed fossil-fuel power plants must not be built.

“Even if all currently planned projects are immediately suspended, up to 20 percent of global fossil-fuel generation capacity would still have to be stranded (that is, prematurely decommissioned, underutilized, or subject to costly retrofitting) if humanity is to meet the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement,” according to the IOP report.

The governor may have signed an executive order last year “reaffirming Rhode Island’s commitment to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement,” but the Ocean State certainly isn’t doing its best to address climate change.

The passing of environmentally friendly bonds, the building of the nation’s first offshore wind farm, handing out grant-funding morsels for environmental projects, and a fractured system of protecting open space aren’t enough, not even close. Rhode Island, with its advantageous size for implementing real change, keeps punting its responsibility into the future. It’s not a fair catch.

Anthropogenic climate change has exposed the foolishness of human neglect of the natural world. It’s way too late for timid responses like executive orders. Our selfish actions — individually, collectively, and politically — are creating a dystopian future. Many of these current and future manmade catastrophes could have been avoided with some foresight and sacrifice.

Human well-being and economic prosperity are tethered to nature, but modern humans have never acted like they are. Variety and abundance of life are the fundamental necessities of a habitable planet. Life can’t prosper on a sphere filled with humans, livestock, ticks, rats, mosquitoes, and jellyfish, and covered with over-fertilized soybean fields and overfished oceans.

Here in Rhode Island, a job plan focused “on putting cranes in the sky” is a cliche not a solution, especially when much of the development ignores the state’s acres and acres of already-disturbed areas and instead cuts further into forests, wetlands, farmland, and other open space.

Jobs are important, but they become meaningless if the planet is burning. The growing flames of climate change are being fanned by the building of stuff we don’t need in places that weaken ecosystems and jeopardize public health. We can put people to work building things in places that make economic, societal, and environmental sense. But it takes some sacrifice. We’re not good at sacrificing. It’s too hard.

The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and Rhode Island’s past as a costume-jewelry-manufacturing juggernaut are remembered fondly for the jobs that were created. What is largely forgotten is that the pollution, contamination, and environmental degradation created during this revered jobs explosion helped pave the way to our current situation.

The soils of productive landscapes have been turned to dirt. Groundwater has been drained beyond the reach of roots. There’s barely a ripple in once-rich fishing grounds. Gyres of plastic marine debris are expanding. Bays, estuaries, and deltas have been choked of life. Rivers and lakes are turning a toxic blue-green. Brownfields and Super Fund sites have left behind toxic legacies. Fields, forests, and wetlands have been replaced by lawn and pavement.

Biodiversity is diminishing, and along with it our chances to adequately address the impacts of climate change before it’s much too late.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.

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  1. How long can we not pay attention to what is happening. Just buying more air conditioners and using more power to use then is no fix. This summer even on Narragansett Bay in Bristol has been like a winter with big snowfalls. Nobodies out. Everyone is hunckered down inside in air conditiong waiting for the heat to abate – almost forgetting how tortuous it is to just be outside.

  2. Animal agriculture (including the gmo crops of soy and corn to feed them) is vying with fossil fuels as the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and land/water pollution. Going vegan and limiting processed sugar/"food" is a personal step that is vital, and will not be a luxury of choice in coming generations. We are destroying the planet with our selfish appetites and addictions to animal flesh and secretions. I beseech people to look into the science and facts on this and take responsibility for your part in this. Hard to listen to people complaining and being outraged as they say "mmm bacon" and make no attempt to change.

  3. Just a note on the illustration at the top of this fine article: That poster was produced by the Burrillville Conservation Commission and displayed at the July 10 press conference at Pulaski Park where several of our most prominent environmental organizations presented their cases against the "Clear River Energy Center" power plant proposed by the Invenergy company for the northeast border of the Pulaski-George Washington state forest.

    The illustration’s 47 "Species of Greatest Conservation Need," are not a random selection. They are the 47 SGCN’s found on Invenergy’s proposed power plant site in a study done by Invenergy’s environmental consultants, the ESS Group of East Providence, last year. The full report—texts, tables, photos and findings—called the "Biological Inventory, was filed with the Energy Facilities Siting Board August 2 of last year and is available to the public on the page of the RI PUC’s website devoted to the Invenergy case.

    But, readers should not confuse this document—Invenergy’s own study—with an Environmental Impact Statement. No Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment process has been ordered for the Invenergy project by the EFSB, or called for by the Governor. Thus, so far as the legal proceedings of the EFSB are concerned in regard to the plant’s environmental impacts, this one document—Invenergy’s—is the only scientific evidence concerning biodiversity impacts that has been introduced in the case. And this evidence only concerns the biodiversity on the power plant site, not in the surrounding forests, state or private. In other words, it is legally the case that the bordering Pulaski-George Washington forest and the nearby Buck Hill state forest and the 1,600 acre Boy Scout forest—not to mention the border Ct. and Ma state forests—do not exist as a matter of fact, but only as vague conjecture with no scientific and evidentiary standing.

    Contrast this EFSB proceeding with its first power plant case in 1988, the Ocean State Power Project sited six miles east, when both the Governor, Edward DiPrete, and the EFSB—despite the delay it would cause in final decision—called for an EIS to be conducted. (This was the subject of another fine ecori news article last week.) An EIS or an EA is conducted by an independent agency. It’s scope includes impacts on all the surrounding landscape, not just the power plant site itself. But for the Invenergy project, nearly twice as big as Ocean States’s, does not, in the opinion of the Governor or the EFSB warrant an EIS or EA.

    Why? Why no Environmental Impact Statement for Invenergy when there was one for Ocean State?

  4. The link between toxic algae blooms and global climate change is not solid. Folks only really became aware of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the past 20 years or so, and the increased frequency is more likely due to an increased frequency in assessments and testing for the Cyanobacteria and toxins. Algal blooms are much more closely linked to increases in nutrient levels in the waters where these blooms form.

    • Carl, I agree. I was using blooms and manmade climate changes/stressors (including the over use of fertilizers and runoff) to say we are not taking good care of the planet. Perhaps I threw too many problems into the climate change/stressor pot. — Frank Carini, ecoRI News editor

  5. Clearly the message has to be we can not afford to build any new fossil fuel facilities. No Power plant in Burrillville, no LNG in PVD.

  6. Thanks for posting this. The Projo won’t submit my letters to the editor telling them to do something…I’m glad this is out there! It’s absolutely disgusting that a state that has the nerve to call itself The Ocean State (on bays) has to close swimming to algae, stormwater runoff and God knows what else. the DEM needs to get responsible.

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