Despite not Meeting Stricter Effluent Restrictions, Kenyon Mill Discharge Permit Likely to be Renewed
November 10, 2021
RICHMOND, R.I. — Kenyon Industries’ permit to discharge effluent into the Pawcatuck River is up for renewal, and some residents are hoping there will be a public workshop on the permit.
Built in 1844, the mill first produced wool and cotton, and is one of the few historic mills in Rhode Island that continues to operate. The facility, which employs about 300 people, currently manufactures, dyes, and finishes fabrics.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is responsible for administering the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). DEM issues Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (RIPDES) permits, which regulate municipal and stormwater discharge and industrial effluent.
Joseph Haberek, DEM’s acting administrator in charge of surface water quality, oversees the permitting process. The discharge into the Pawcatuck River from Kenyon Industries, he said, has been going on for so long that it pre-dates the regulations.
“This facility’s been discharging for many, many decades, certainly since the beginning of Rhode Island DEM being authorized, the federal NPDES authorization in ’84, so it’s nothing new,” Haberek said.
Kenyon’s latest RIPDES permit, issued in 2010, is expiring and DEM is preparing to renew it in what Haberek described as a “routine reissuance.” The draft of the mill’s new RIPDES permit would allow the mill to continue to discharge effluent into the Pawcatuck River at four locations, including a new outfall that would discharge excess groundwater and floodwater from the Sherman Avenue facility.
The mill’s effluent contains a diverse mix of chemicals, including sulfide, total chromium, total ammonia, copper, aluminum, nickel, lead, silver, and zinc.
Haberek noted the limits on some of these substances have become more stringent since the mill’s last RIPDES permit. He said monitoring requirements have also changed and now require measuring two additional chemicals: hexavalent chromium and phenol. Kenyon Industries will also be required to file a phosphorus and nitrogen-removal engineering report within three years of the permit’s renewal.
The problem is, according to Haberek, Kenyon Industries is not currently capable of meeting the new, stricter standards. He said DEM and the company would therefore need negotiate a consent agreement that would set a timetable for Kenyon to comply with the state’s new effluent limits.
“We’ll issue the permit with those limits in it,” Haberek said. “The facility will have to appeal those limits, and then we’ll subsequently enter into a consent agreement … that’ll establish two things: one, it’ll establish interim limits so those are limits that will be in effect when they’re working on compliance, and it will also establish an enforceable compliance schedule for them to conduct the necessary studies and upgrade the treatment plant as necessary to meet the final limits.”
The Pawcatuck River is part of the 300-square-mile Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, which received a “Wild & Scenic” designation in 2019 from the National Park Service. One of the program’s stated objectives is to “improve and conserve water quality and water quantity,” leading some groups, particularly those that worked to achieve the national designation, to wonder how discharging chemicals into the river furthers that goal.
A hearing on the mill’s permit application will take place if 25 or more people request it. However, Haberek said members of the public will not have an opportunity to ask questions.
“It’s not a forum for question and answer,” he said. “It’s strictly just an opportunity to, if people don’t want to submit written comments, they can give us, you know, oral testimony. … Frankly, in the past, we haven’t had a lot of interest or questions about this, so we didn’t do a workshop on this permit.”
Downstream from Richmond, Charlestown Planning Commission chair Ruth Platner said she hoped the state would hold a workshop, where residents could participate and ask questions.
“What we need is a public informational meeting, and DEM could just explain why this is moving in a good direction, if it is, and why this is all that can be done,” she said. “I think those are the questions. It’s not reasonable to expect that [Kenyon] would meet all current regulations, because that facility would never be allowed on the river under current regulations, but it’s been there for hundreds of years and it’s one of the very last textile mills.”
Christopher Fox, executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA), said it was unfortunate that the facility would not be immediately able to comply, but like Platner, he understood the challenges that Kenyon’s parent company, New York City-based Brookwood Companies, would face meeting Rhode Island’s new pollution limits.
“WPWA is disappointed that Brookwood Companies is unable to comply with the recently updated pollution discharge limits,” he wrote in an email. “However, WPWA is sympathetic to the difficult financial constraints that complicate Brookwood’s ability to fully comply with the current standards. Over the last decade Brookwood has made solid, and expensive, progress toward lowering their mill’s environmental impact on the Pawcatuck River. It is far more beneficial to have an operational industry who is improving and working amicably with regulators than an orphaned/failed industrial operation [Bradford Printing and Finishing, Charbert Mill, etc.] full of legacy pollutants and no owner to take responsibility for them.”
Brookwood Companies did not respond to a request for comment.