Public Health & Recreation

Environment America Settles Clean Water Lawsuit Against Kenyon Industries


The mill is less than a quarter-mile upstream of the Pawcatuck River's Horseshoe Falls. (Environment America)

Environment America has reached a settlement in its Clean Water Act lawsuit against Kenyon Industries Inc. and its parent company, Brookwood Companies Inc., for alleged violations of the federal law at their textile mill in Richmond, R.I.

The suit alleged that since at least 2010, Kenyon has repeatedly discharged into the Pawcatuck River illegal amounts of copper, a highly toxic water pollutant.

“Rhode Island’s rivers deserve protection from pollution,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America. “Today’s settlement finally puts the Pawcatuck River on a healthier path and demonstrates the crucial role that citizen lawsuits play in the enforcement of our core environmental laws.”

The 35-mile-long Pawcatuck River is part of the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, which qualified in 2019 as a National Wild and Scenic River, a prestigious recognition enjoyed by less than 1% of the nation’s waterways. The Pawcatuck River is home to 67 species of fish and numerous historic Native American sites. It is especially popular with canoeists and kayakers, and supports a variety of additional recreational activities, including swimming, fishing, hiking, and foraging.

The Pawcatuck River flows directly under the textile manufacturing facility operated by Kenyon, less than a quarter-mile upstream of Horseshoe Falls in southern Rhode Island. 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.

Environment America’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Providence, alleged the mill violated the Clean Water Act 1,784 times since 2017 (within the statute of limitations period), routinely discharging wastewater with concentrations of copper more than two and a half times its permitted limits. 

In addition to copper violations, the suit alleged the wastewater discharged by Kenyon into the Pawcatuck River was found to be acutely toxic to aquatic life on numerous occasions, also in violation of its permit. The state of Rhode Island has designated the 2.16-mile portion of the Pawcatuck River immediately downstream from the Kenyon textile mill as too toxic for fish and wildlife.

The proposed May 18 settlement follows months of productive negotiations between representatives of Environment America and Kenyon. Despite completing a major overhaul of its wastewater treatment system in 2016, Kenyon has continued to experience numerous problems with the quality of its wastewater. With insights from Environment America’s wastewater engineering expert, the parties identified ways to optimize the treatment system’s performance.

If approved by U.S. District Court Judge Mary McElroy, finalizing the settlement will require Kenyon to expeditiously implement a specific series of plant improvements until it achieves 12 consecutive months of compliance with its permit limits for copper and whole effluent toxicity. Failure to achieve compliance will trigger automatic monetary penalties.

As an additional condition of the settlement, Kenyon and Brookwood are required to pay a $10,000 civil penalty for their past violations and also pay $40,000 to the Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic Rivers Stewardship Council. The Stewardship Council will direct the money to projects promoting the restoration, preservation, and protection of the Pawcatuck River, with a particular focus on the area downstream from the Kenyon mill.

“The Pawcatuck is a treasured natural resource,” said Christopher Grube, chair of the Stewardship Council. “The payment from this lawsuit will go a long way towards ensuring it is restored and protected well into the future.”

In 2021, Kenyon Industries’ permit to discharge effluent into the Pawcatuck River was up for renewal, and some residents were hoping there would be a public workshop on the permit. There wasn’t.

Kenyon’s latest Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (RIPDES) permit, issued in 2010, was expiring and the state Department of Environmental Management was preparing to renew it in what state officials 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.

“This facility’s been discharging for many, many decades, certainly since the beginning of Rhode Island DEM being authorized, the federal NPDES [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] authorization in ’84, so it’s nothing new,” a DEM official told ecoRI News for a story published in November 2021.

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