Public Health & Recreation

Contaminated Dirt Pile at Newport High School Angers Neighbors

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A 40,000-cubic-yard hill of contaminated soil sits in the middle of the closed track at Rogers High School in Newport. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Residents of the city’s Newport Neck neighborhood have had a troublesome new neighbor over the past couple of years, and it’s not moving out anytime soon.

A pile of around 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil accumulated on the William S. Rogers High School track area last year. The soil stockpile — confirmed to exceed state minimums for arsenic, lead, and other pollutants — was excavated last year as part of the construction of the foundation for the new Rogers High School elsewhere on the site.

Local residents are going to have to learn to live with their new neighbor. According to a document sent to the City Council by the school building committee, there is no current plan to reuse or remove all of the dirt being stored near the high school track. By November, another 17,000 cubic yards is expected to be added to the pile, with only 7,000 cubic yards expected to be used for a later phase of the new high school’s construction.

In its timeline, the school building committee suggests the dirt could be used either toward future city projects, or to add to the cap of the Harrison Avenue dump, which formerly occupied part of the property that Rogers High School sits on.

This timeline, originally sent to the City Council at its own request, was not well-received by members at a March 27 meeting.

“This City Council has been asking the school building committee for many, many, many months to deal with the stockpile,” council member David Carlin said at the meeting. “How would you like 40,000 cubic yards of dirt, toxic dirt, in your backyard? I don’t think anyone would want that. This is a serious concern for neighbors. They’ve done nothing.”

A third-party analysis of the soil, commissioned by the City Council and performed by Providence-based VHB, found elevated levels of lead and arsenic in the pile, a result consistent with similar testing performed by the Lincoln-based Pare Corp. last summer. The study also showed seven polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline and are the result of burning coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco — higher than DEM’s set criteria.

How the soil on the high school property became contaminated, and when, is a little more unclear. Prior to being a high school, the land was used by the military and as a quarry for gravel excavation. The parcel also includes the site of the now-capped Harrison Avenue dump.

Neighbors have complained about the dirt pile both to state regulators and ecoRI News. In April 2023, abutters close to the site complained the dirt was finding its way onto their property despite the measures taken to ensure it stays in place. In May 2023, DEM received complaints of dirt from the pile blowing over onto neighbors’ properties again, despite the contractors planting vegetation to keep it in place.

Meanwhile, despite setbacks with the dirt pile and budget overruns, the new Rogers High School is expected to be completed by 2025.

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