Public Health & Recreation

State Lawmakers Question Handling of Seekonk River Oil Spills

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Remediation workers from National Grid work on cleaning up the coal tar oil that spilled into the Seekonk River from the Tidewater Landing project. (Rob Smith/ecoRI News)

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — State lawmakers blasted National Grid last week after the multinational corporation failed to inform residents of recent oil spills in the Seekonk River stemming from the nearby Tidewater Landing site remediation.

Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, and Rep. Rebecca Kislak D-Providence, said they were only informed of the existence of the oil spills from concerned community members.

National Grid informed the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Coast Guard, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the spill immediately, but local officials were not notified. According to both Kallman and Kislak, neither National Grid nor DEM notified them or their constituents about either oil spill.

“The city was not proactively notified. I was not proactively notified. I had to learn from a constituent. That is not how this should happen,” Kallman said.

Just off Taft Street, the site, a heavily polluted brownfield, is the future home of a $284 million mulituse soccer stadium. The property hosted industrial gas manufacturing operations as late as 1968, and much of the site is still contaminated with byproducts such as coal tar oil.

Property owner National Grid, to prepare the site for construction, was excavating dirt on Dec. 1 when the latest oil spill occurred. Workers set up booms in the Seekonk River to capture runoff pollutants. According to a statement from National Grid, the leak occurred when coal tar oil breached the booms.

But a day later, on Dec. 2, an earlier oil spill became public, when local resident Alex Hornstein showed Kallman and Kislak photographs and video of an oil slick in the river on Nov. 10.

“If it wasn’t for his careful watching and recording that it is entirely possible we would not have known about the earlier spill,” Kislak said.

Hornstein said he first started noticing oil in the river on Nov. 4, but chalked it up to runoff from somewhere upstream. He became concerned when a week passed and the west bank of the Seekonk River still had a rainbow sheen.

“It started to smell and it got worse, and I started noticing all the animals were gone,” Hornstein said. He reported the leak to EPA and DEM on Nov. 12.

DEM has attributed the November oil spill to a significant storm that caused coal tar oil to leak from the booms that day.

“The Seekonk River is a recovering urban industrial river,” said Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer. “There’s dozens of sites along the river that are brownfield sites … until we have evidence we can look at and then try to assess, we can’t just assume in this case that that pollution came from the Tidewater site.”

The most recent spill’s impact on wildlife so far has been minimal, according to DEM. On Dec. 3 a state marine biologist investigating the spill site found only one type of dead fish, menhaden, a common type of bait fish, and attributed their deaths to cold shock. DEM is expected to perform pathology tests on the collected fish this week to confirm their cause of death.

In the meantime, lawmakers have pledged to look at what went wrong, from both sides of the problem.

”I think we need more enforcement and DEM needs more resources for enforcement,” Kislak said.

“When you know there’s a problem and it happens again three weeks later, what does accountability look like in his situation?” Kallman asked.

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