Public Health & Recreation

Olneyville’s 6-10 Contamination Problems Pile Up

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Community pressure builds as contaminated dirt remains a growing health concern at the 6-10 Connector construction site. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

An estimated 2,500 cubic yards — some 85 truckloads — of contaminated fill is illegally piled in a staging area for the highway and bridge project next to Plainfield Pike in the Providence neighborhood of Olneyville despite an order to have it removed by Aug. 17.

Emails show that the construction company that put it there, Barletta Heavy Division Inc., was busted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) after a complaint about the material was filed around July 21. Ten days later, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) confirmed with DEM that the illegal dumping of material came from the Pawtucket/Central Falls bus and rail station construction site, a project led by Barletta. The Canton, Mass.-based company was asked by RIDOT to remove and dispose of the material at a licensed facility. After Barletta failed to act, RIDOT issued a formal notice Aug. 3 to the construction company ordering the dirt removed and disposed of by Aug. 17.

The deadline passed without action by Barletta, and by Sept. 8 news outlets reported complaints about the polluted fill from International Union of Operating Engineers Local 57, the union representing heavy-equipment operators at the 6-10 project. Local 57 president James White noted that multiple requests to Barletta to control dust from the contaminated material were ignored.

GoLocalProv recently reported that RIDOT director Peter Alviti downplayed the toxicity of the material during a Sept. 10 radio interview. However, soil tests conducted this past summer proved the material in Pawtucket and the dirt shipped to Plainfield Pike contained toxins, including two times the acceptable levels of carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbons and four times the acceptable levels of benzo(a)pyrene, another carcinogen.

On Sept. 16, RIDOT changed course when it announced in a press release that the soil “showed levels of some contaminants above regulatory thresholds. As a result, DEM and RIDOT agreed that the soil should be removed.”

RIDOT, however, wrote in a Sept. 16 email to ecoRI News that a second pile of polluted material, about 1,600 cubic yards worth, at the 6-10 construction site was brought in from a Barletta commuter rail station project in East Boston, Mass. This contaminated material was also dumped in Olneyville, a neighborhood that is 61 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Black.

“None of this fill came from Pawtucket,” RIDOT’s communications director Lisbeth Pettengill wrote. “All that soil was properly disposed of last week. This contractor has advised us that the material came from Orient Heights [commuter rail station in East Boston].”

RIDOT said the Orient Heights dirt was removed and disposed of at the Central Landfill in Johnston. But the operator of the state’s primary landfill, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), hasn’t agreed to accept the material. An application submitted to RIRRC by an independent engineer recommended that the material is suitable for alternative daily cover at the landfill, although it’s unclear if the dirt is from Pawtucket or East Boston. RIDOT has declined to clarify.

“I apologize that we are not at liberty to go into all the details of the logistics of the piles at the 6-10 and Pawtucket,” Pettengill wrote in a Nov. 5 morning email. “We are as frustrated as I am sure you are about our inability to clarify facts and misstatements. The Director’s and our hands are tied right now but we hope to be able to clear up a number of allegations in the near future. When the Director is ready and able to talk about this entire sequence of events, we will be sure to reach out to you. This should be shortly.”

The town of Tiverton offered to take the contaminated material at its municipal landfill. But DEM denied a permit, because the facility is in the process of renewing its three-year license and nearing the end of its operational life. The landfill is also unlined and prone to spread pollutants, according to DEM.

More than two months later, the polluted piles remain in Olneyville.

The health risks of the contaminated fill seem clear. Tests of the RIDOT-owned Pawtucket/Central Falls site revealed that DEM and RIDOT were aware of the presence of contaminated material at the commuter rail station and bus hub project.

A more recent test by Barletta found that the material was safe, while a subsequent test by Local 57 showed contamination. RIDOT conducted another test Sept. 12 that confirmed the material is polluted.

GoLocalProv has reported that a number of state and federal authorities are investigating the matter.

RIDOT referred questions about the matter to State Police and the attorney general’s office. State Police declined to discuss the matter and deflected inquiries back to RIDOT. Emails show DEM and State Police have discussed the matter. Neither organization would confirm an investigation.

The attorney general’s office also declined to say if an investigation in underway, but noted that it is concerned about the situation and is following it closely.

“We are working with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as well as federal authorities, but cannot offer additional details at this time,” spokesperson Kristy dosReis said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Rhode Island wouldn’t confirm an investigation.

A new civic group is demanding that the state address the project’s health and racial-justice impacts.

Fix the 6/10 Coalition is calling on Gov. Gina Raimondo and RIDOT to halt work on the $410 million roadway development until the health risks from the hazardous material can be assessed. Those impacts, the group said, are contributing to environmental racism.

“Amid nationwide and local cries for equity and efforts to dismantle structural racism, the Route 6-10 construction project continues to compound environmental injustices on our neighborhoods,” according to a recent statement by the group of 15 civic organizations.

The group noted that the Olneyville neighborhood has a high number of low-income residents and residents of color. The area closest to the construction site has some of the highest asthma and lead poisoning rates in the state. The group said four nearby schools are at risk of adverse health impacts.

“We ask that our leaders prioritize the health and safety of our residents, above all else, in this and future highway projects,” according to the Fix the 6/10 Coalition.

The group hasn’t received a response from Raimondo or RIDOT. But the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) replied, saying the agency is looking into the issue with DEM and will be in contact with the group with more details soon.

DOH told ecoRI News that it can’t discuss a matter that is being actively investigated.

Fix the 6/10 Coalition noted that hundreds of homes were demolished, displacing frontline communities when the original highway interconnection was built in the 1950s.

Neighborhood efforts to redesign the connector network as a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly boulevard were rebuffed by the governor and other state officials.

The five-year 6-10 reconstruction consists of nine bridge-rebuilding projects that make up the interchange between interstates 295, 95, and 195. Shared-use bicycle and pedestrian paths are included in portions of Route 10 that are being lowered to ground level.

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  1. the same DOT wants to send the mainly low income bus passengers out of convenient Kennedy Plaza to a forlorn site on Dyer St that has been used by the utility National Grid. What can possibly go wrong?

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