Public Health & Recreation

City Council Calls Out Port of Providence’s Polluting Ways

Resolution calls for environmental compliance along Allens Avenue


A fire last month at Rhode Island Recycled Metals on Allens Avenue captured the attention of the Providence City Council. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos)

PROVIDENCE — The City Council last month unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for more environmental controls and compliance in the Port of Providence. The unenforceable pledge came about a week after a fire at an illegally operating Allens Avenue business sent a plume of black smoke drifting over two beleaguered neighborhoods.

The health and safety of those neighborhoods — South Providence and Washington Park — have long been overlooked by far too many local and state officials in favor of expanding and protecting the toxic businesses that proliferate along much of the city’s waterfront.

Over the years Rhode Island Recycled Metals, where the March 9 fire occurred, has been allowed to operate and expand even though it lacks required permits; the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure along a waterfront vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge has been supported; in an area busy with truck activity, the state’s idling law is rarely or if ever enforced; and the neighborhoods’ high rates of asthma have long been ignored. (Many local and state officials did voice their opposition to a construction and demolition facility proposed for the corner of Allens and Thurbers avenues that was ultimately rejected last year.)

Accidents also mar the area. In the past four years alone, heavily polluted Allens Avenue has dealt with:

An excavator on fire.

A gasoline spill after a tanker truck overturned on the ramp from Allens Avenue to Interstate 95 North, with gasoline reaching the Providence River. The truck was carrying 11,000 gallons of fuel.

A fire at a metal scrap yard that set a large pile of junk ablaze.

The rupture of a high-pressure pipeline that released about 19 million cubic feet of methane, or enough natural gas to heat 190,000 homes for a single day.

The derailment of a tanker car carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol.

The area also has had to deal repeatedly with a nauseating stench from the Sprague Energy Terminal. The odor problems began in September 2017 after Sprague converted two of its tanks to hold liquid asphalt products. The company has been slow to address the problem. The stink lingers.

Besides hosting an array of polluting businesses that store toxic materials, the city, state, and most businesses do little to address the neglect along Allens Avenue, such as trash that collects along rusting and bowing chain-links fences, the overgrowth of weeds that obstruct sidewalk passage, and the grit and debris that covers the shoulder where bicyclists ride.

Last month’s resolution was introduced by Ward 10 council member Pedro Espinal, who represents Lower South Providence and Washington Park. In a press release touting the resolution’s passage, Espinal noted that scrap yards and other businesses in the Port of Providence “can cause significant negative environmental and health impacts on the community, which is why my colleagues and I call for better oversight of the businesses around the Port.”

“After the fire at the scrap yard on Allen’s Avenue last week, it has become even more pressing that we need to have better environmental controls and compliance by the businesses who are working in the Port of Providence,” Espinal wrote in the March 18 press release. “Last year, I introduced and passed an Ordinance to protect the Port and other areas of the City from becoming a wasteland. Yet, these existing businesses continue to pollute our neighborhoods and potentially our waterways. I want these businesses to do better, be safer, and to transition as best they can to cleaner and safer practices.”

Through the resolution, the City Council has asked the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to provide it with a copy of all notices of violation issued to businesses and property owners in the Port of Providence for the past 10 years.

Ward 1 council member John Goncalves, who represents Fox Point, portions of College Hill and Wayland Square, and much of the Innovation District, said he shares his colleague’s hope that the city can move to more environmentally friendly business practices along Allens Avenue.

“One of the greatest crises that we are facing as a society is climate change, and the damage that is being done to the environment by businesses like scrap yards and other ‘dirty’ businesses,” he wrote. “As a city and state, we want businesses to operate and flourish here, but we can’t have that at the expense of our residents and our natural environment.”

While the recent resolution shines some light on long-overlooked problems, it will take more than DEM providing city officials with a copy of all notices of violation issued in the past 10 years to clean up the mess that is Allens Avenue.

Since the resolution was unanimously supported, ecoRI News has asked, through the council’s deputy chief of staff, all 15 City Council members for their responses to these three questions:

What can/should the city do to address the public-health and environmental concerns along Allens Avenue and the Port of Providence?

Why do you believe state and local officials, past and present, have been slow to address the health and environmental issues that plague the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods?

How does the city get more Port of Providence businesses to become better neighbors?

The questions were emailed to the deputy chief of staff on the morning of April 5. ecoRI News asked that the members’ responses be submitted by April 9 at 5 p.m. A story examining their responses will be published next week.

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  1. Thank you Eco Ri News for your continued support for the environment, and the particular issues here along Allens Avenue and the Port.
    Linda Perri
    Washington Park Association

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