Pollution Problems Persist at 3 Rhode Island Locations
January 27, 2021
A lack of urgency and a deference to business interests by Rhode Island officials have allowed three high-profile pollution problems to fester. All of the ongoing environmental degradation has been happening for more than a decade.
It’s long been the modus operandi of a state more interested in placating businesses than enforcing the laws they violate, even as this shortsighted practice essentially punishes those companies that abide by the rules.
Many of the state’s environmental regulations are selectively enforced depending if you are a 72-year-old Charlestown man charged with the possession of striped bass during the closed season, an industry with political pull, or a lawmaker with a business interest.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the agency that “serves as the chief steward of the state’s natural resources” and whose mission “is to protect, restore, and promote our environment,” didn’t make anyone available for an interview for this article. Instead, a spokesperson answered some preliminary questions sent in an email requesting an interview.
The following is a look at the three situations:
The Warwick landfill closed in 1978 and operated before strict regulations were in place. No one knows for sure what is buried beneath 36 acres in the middle of the Buckeye Brook watershed. Remediation efforts during the past 43 years have amounted to no more than 2 feet of loam being spread on top of abused land loaded with harmful materials.
During a June 1982 state inspection of the property, a former Truk-Away Landfill employee told the Rhode Island Department of Health he had been responsible for overseeing the disposal of hundreds of drums of chemical waste. Those drums contained, among other things, benzyl chloride, spent solvents, chlorobenzene, dyes, pigments, and intermediate compounds made from benzene reactions, phenols, hydrogen peroxide, and benzenesulfonyl chloride.
Those drums represent but a slice of what was and may have been dumped at the landfill. Truk-Away Landfill opened in 1970 and accepted municipal and industrial waste until its closure eight years later.
The list of material dumped there is long and concerning — medical waste, electrical waste, paint cans, mercury film packs, fly ash, still bottoms, and hydroxide sludge. The site had an oil disposal pit, and the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been detected.
Several reports have been written to assess what is there, but so far little action has been taken to remove any of it. The most-recent report, a 2,142-page tome, was published last June by GZA GeoEnvironmental Inc. It was prepared for DEM.
The nearly yearlong site investigation report by GZA noted, among other things:
Light nonaqueous phase liquids (LNAPL) were found in groundwater monitoring wells. These hydrocarbons tend to contaminate soil and groundwater for long periods of time and are persistent organic pollutants.
On the landfill perimeter, especially the northeastern side, waste appears to have been deposited into the wetland area.
Landfill gas containing levels of methane above DEM’s criteria of 25 percent of the lower explosive limit were observed in samples from two perimeter monitoring probes along the site’s western edge.
Exceedances for VOCs benzene, chlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, and vinyl chloride, and semi-metals/metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, and nickel were detected.
Some surface water samples showed exceedences for state water-quality criteria for chlorobenzene, semivolatile organic compounds, iron, cadmium, nickel, and zinc.
GZA eventually concluded “that there is a low potential for significant risk of harm to ecological receptors in the adjacent wetlands. This opinion is based on comparing contaminant concentrations in surface water and sediment samples to ecological risk screening benchmarks.”
However, the environmental consultant’s conclusion for a 54-acre property owned by the Rhode Island Department of Administration hasn’t lessened the concern of neighbors such as Philip D’Ercole.
The site’s toxic stew, combined with minimal remediation efforts during the past four decades, continues to annoy and worry neighbors and environmentalists.
Three waterbodies — Brush Neck Cove, Little Pond, and Buckeye Brook — are all less than a mile from the former landfill on Warwick Industrial Drive. Wetlands surround much of the landfill, and appear to drain toward Buckeye Brook. Dark red- and orange-stained soils, evidence of leachate outbreaks, have been documented leading from the landfill’s edges into the surrounding wetlands.
D’Ercole and his wife, Carmen, have lived on Edgehill Road on the shores of Warwick Pond for the past 18 years. Concerned that contaminated runoff and groundwater flow from the landfill property is making its way into the pond, they don’t eat any of the fish they catch and they don’t go swimming.
Philip D’Ercole recently told ecoRI News that the lack of remediation is “absolutely frustrating.” He’s worried about the long-term environmental impacts, public-health risks, and his property value posed by the improperly closed landfill.
D’Ercole said Friends of Warwick Ponds, a group he helped create, and other local residents want a guarantee from state officials that there is no leaching of chemicals and toxins from the landfill into the nearby wetlands. He said that would likely require the physical removal of waste and contaminated soil. He understands such a project would be expensive, but believes not properly remediating the site would be even costlier.
“The landfill has been closed for four decades and the toxic chemicals are still there and still present the potential to leach into the wetlands,” D’Ercole said. “What an unbelievable lack of institutional control.”
DEM has proposed a remedial alternative that focuses on the removal of the light nonaqueous phase liquids, noting that historic sampling indicates that these products contain PCBs that have exceeded the analytical thresholds established by the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Where remediation stands according to DEM spokesperson: “The Remedial Action phase of the project has not commenced yet. This phase would commence following Department concurrence with the findings of the Site Investigation Report, which also includes the State/PRP Group addressing the outstanding Department technical comments as well as performing public notice/comment period requirements of the Site Remediation Regulations.”
Hopkins Hill Sand & Stone
The West Greenwich quarry on New London Turnpike, a Cardi Corp. subsidiary, had been operating without a Rhode Island pollutant discharge elimination system (RIPDES) permit for 16 years before DEM decided to apply a bit of bureaucratic muscle.
In late February of last year, DEM issued a notice of violation (NOV) to Hopkins Hill Sand & Stone LLC and the property’s owner, Hopkins Hill Road Realty LLC, for environmental violations arising from the mining of sand and stone at the facility.
The NOV charged both parties with violations of Rhode Island’s Water Pollution Control Act and state water-quality and pollutant-discharge elimination system regulations. The enforcement action included a $67,896 penalty. It also required the parties to immediately cease the discharge of all processed water and stormwater from the facility to nearby wetlands until a permit is issued and all the required controls are installed and operational.
Hopkins Hill Sand & Stone appealed. The quarry is still operating illegally and polluting a nearby conservation area. Nothing has changed.
The mining operation, which conducts blasting, as this 2016 Cardi Corp. video on YouTube and these 2018 and 2017 Facebook videos show, abuts the Big River Management Area, an 8,319-acre conservation area that features streams, wetlands, and the Big, Nooseneck, Congdon, and Carr rivers.
Quarry waste runoff that flows off property used by one of the more recognizable corporations in the state and onto land owned by the Rhode Island Water Resources Board and managed by DEM has left plenty of environmental scars: stormwater damage, accumulating silt in stream beds, and out-of-place gravel and rocks deposited in the conservation area.
DEM long knew the Cardi Corp. subsidiary was operating illegally. A June 14, 2018 letter of noncompliance sent to Hopkins Hill Sand & Stone by DEM noting that the company is in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and state law makes reference to another letter sent nearly 14 years earlier (Oct. 13, 2004) that notified Hopkins Hill Road LLC that it needed “to apply for and receive approval from the DEM RIPDES program for the permitting of stormwater discharges associated with industrial activity.”
During all that time, another Rhode Island business learned that DEM threats are toothless.
Where remediation stands according to DEM spokesperson: “An appeal was filed on the NOV, so the ordered actions in the NOV and the penalty assessed in the NOV are legally stayed until the appeal is concluded. We are in settlement negotiations with the respondents to resolve the NOV. No permit has been issued and the discharges have not ceased.”
Rhode Island Recycled Metals
The waterfront scrap yard on Allens Avenue in Providence has been flaunting its contempt for the state’s environmental regulations since it began operating illegally 12 years ago.
It took DEM six years to respond with legal action, despite Save The Bay urging the state agency to take action sooner. The scrap-metal processing facility sits atop a former Superfund site that was contaminated during the 1980s by a computer and electronics shredding company. The property has tested positive for PCBs.
Rhode Island Recycled Metals (RIRM), the operator of scrap-metal yards at 434 and 444 Allens Ave., opened both sites without required permits. The business has since been cited for inadequate runoff control systems and improper operations.
Since 2009, pollution from the capped 6-acre brownfield has flowed into the Providence River. The facility at 444 Allens Ave. has several vessels designated for demolition sitting offshore. The vessels, including a fully submerged former Soviet nuclear submarine and a partially submerged ferry, are in violation of environmental regulations, including spilling oil into the Providence River.
The Coastal Resources Management Council insisted that the submarine be fully demolished by 2012. RIRM ignored that order. The business also brought in a handful of other vessels for scrap without authorization.
Early last year RIRM was given another 90 days to comply with a new consent order for removing the vessels. RIRM has agreed to stop bringing in vessels and can no longer cut up new boats or vehicles.
Since the original complaint was filed by DEM on March 4, 2015, more than 70 hearings, reports, and conferences have been held in Rhode Island Superior Court. The waterfront business eventually paid a $25,000 penalty.
About a year after DEM took formal legal action against its operations at 434 and 444 Allens Ave., RIRM opened another junk collection facility down the street, at 278 Allens Ave., without obtaining the required permits or having a stormwater management plan in place.
Where remediation stands according to DEM spokesperson: “RIRM is operating under various orders issued by the Superior Court. RIRM continues to work on the removal of the submarine. There is no schedule that has been set by the court to complete the work. Once the submarine is removed, RIRM intends to remove the two remaining sunken vessels (the tug and the ferry). The barge was removed (not relocated). Minimum stormwater controls are installed (haybales and silt fence). The $25,000 penalty was paid.”
"Statehouse has long kept DEM tied to puppet strings," eco ri, February 2016, (linked in paragraph #2,) is essential reading in complement to this article. (access by link in 2nd paragraph.
It is striking that with the powerful growth of the environmental justice movement, this longstanding outrage of keeping DEM on a starvation budget, and intimidating its leadership, should be a political rallying point for all of Rhode Island’s environmental organizations as we look forward to the 2022 elections. Just note the locations of these three examples of what our desiccated DEM has failed to deliver over the past two decades: One urban, Providence; one suburban, Warwick; one rural, West Greenwich.
This begs coalition politics. Every Rhode Islander has a stake in providing DEM with both the budget it needs, and the political cover its leadership needs to get the job done in order to ensure all of us—urban, suburban, and rural—a clean and safe place to live and prosper.
The politicians in RI who keep DEM from actually enforcing the law are fools considering that every recent study has demonstrated that strong environmental laws, properly enforced, are good for the economy.
Having grown up in RI and having family and relatives there i am discouraged to see the same negligence by the political facet that was commonplace 30 years ago. We know a lot more and are more in tune than ever to water quality and protection yet the RI governing powers do not seem to be very assertive in their interest or attempts at correcting these and many other environmental wrongs. The power the bigger businesses have always held in RI is incredible. They do what they wish and laugh at the lame, unenforced laws. They have little interest or understanding of the environment or they harm they do. The lack of enforcement is reprehensible and the state sets a very poor example for it’s neighbors. i do not know why the tax paying citizens sit on their hands?!