Opinion

Dirt Pile at Newport’s Rogers High School Not Cause for Alarm

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Newporters have been hearing about dirt for over a year due to concerns about the “dirt pile” at the Rogers High School construction site. The dirt pile has been discussed in many City Council, School Committee, and School Building Committee meetings. There have been claims and inexpert opinions about the hazardous nature of the pile that are muddying the waters of the truth. Because of my background in environmental science, I have an understanding of the testing and site assessment process that has been helpful in following this discussion. Here I share context as to why I’m not worried about the process or the pile, which could be of benefit to those who are concerned.

The presence of contaminants does not make the soil toxic or inherently dangerous to human health. In today’s world, contaminants are unfortunately everywhere, including in our soil. The key factor for safety is the concentration of those contaminants. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management requires a remediation plan when contaminants are found above levels that are deemed to be safe. These levels are incredibly conservative, much lower than would be needed to cause an adverse health effects. These regulations keep us safe, but exceeding defined levels does not immediately mean neighbors are in danger. Instead, it means site managers must execute a remediation plan.

Harm from contaminants depends on how a person is exposed to that contaminant, as all substances interact with the body differently. The main route of exposure for arsenic and other heavy metals is oral, meaning you would have to ingest the material to experience adverse health effects. We all are exposed to much worse compounds in diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, and other day-to-day exposures than we are from the dirt pile at Rogers High School, especially now that it is covered and stabilized.

The presence of contaminants at a building site is not cause for alarm but rather cause for a plan. The Rogers High School site was found to have contaminants “at concentrations typical of the area”; in other words, what we can expect to find locally. The project has complied with DEM guidance every step of the way and is handling the dirt pile in accordance with best practices.

Construction is annoying and cumbersome for the neighbors — just ask homeowners near the bridge realignment project. You can’t turn a corner in Newport without running into a construction project. We shouldn’t confuse annoyance at the duration of construction or the existence of an eyesore with a health risk.

Let’s keep our eye on the prize: let’s finish Rogers.

Emily Conklin lives in Newport and is a marine biologist.

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  1. Ms. Conklin states, “The presence of contaminants at a building site is not cause for alarm but rather cause for a plan.” I’m not a Marine Scientist, but I am a neighbor to the Pile resulting from the construction at Rogers. I totally agree with Ms. Conklin on the need for a plan to mitigate the contamination. My concern is, where/what is that PLAN? The School Building Committee seems focused on completion of the Rogers Building with little or minimum regard for site and environmental remediation.
    Finish Rogers, YES, but finish all of it, including the Environs.

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