Climate & Social Justice

‘Small But Mighty’ Nonprofit Clean Ocean Access is Dissolved


Middletown, R.I., resident and Clean Ocean Access volunteer Kirk Vidotto collects a water sample in the stream that runs into Newport’s popular Easton’s Beach. (COA)

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Clean Ocean Access (COA), a nonprofit founded with “$900 in cash in a Tupperware container” more than 10 years ago, has been dissolved, according to a board member.

Tricia Bielinski, in a Jan. 5 email, said the organization had been operating with just one board member — herself — for the past six months and that both the executive director and the marketing director had resigned in January.

“We simply do not have the people infrastructure needed to keep COA going,” Bielinski wrote. “As the sole remaining Board member staring down a rebuild that would simply be unrealistic for me given my schedule and position, I have made the decision to dissolve the COA organization.”

Pamela Cook was named COA executive director on Jan. 3, 2022. According to the announcement, Cook had “over twenty years of advancement, enrollment, and communications experience in private schools in Massachusetts.”

According to an online announcement earlier this month, Cook has been named director of advancement for the Catholic college prep Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, Mass. Neither Bielinski nor Cook could not be reached for comment for this story.

At COA, Cook replaced Dave McLaughlin, who founded the nonprofit “10 years ago this month,” he said. “We had $900 in a Tupperware container, and grew that into a million-dollar organization.”

McLaughlin said he had wanted to move from executive director to program director in 2021-22, but eventually realized that position wasn’t a good fit and decided to step away from the organization he founded.

COA, which advocated for clean oceans that were accessible to everyone, has been involved in a number of environmental issues over the years, including supporting a plastic bag ban; advocating for a ban on alcohol nips; land conservation and water quality on Aquidneck Island; and shoreline access issues.

A note on COA’s LinkedIn page reads: “Clean Ocean Access has enjoyed the last ten years serving and educating the community of Greater Newport and Rhode Island as a whole. Thank you to all of our ocean loving community of dedicated volunteers, interns and donors throughout the years. Without you COA wouldn’t have been able to do the work we’ve accomplished over the years. The Clean Ocean Access Board of Directors has made the decision to dissolve the organization.”

McLaughlin said he didn’t know why the organization was shut down.

“I noticed in the fall they took all the board members off the site, and the phone stopped working. They were signs something might be happening,” said McLaughlin, who added that he was “sad, disappointed, but not surprised” by the closure.

Running a nonprofit “is a lot of work. It’s hard. It’s like pushing a ball up the hill all the time and if you don’t have momentum the ball rolls back,” he said.

According to Clean Ocean Access’s 2022 tax filing with the IRS, the most recent available, the nonprofit had assets of $805,445. Previous filings show that COA’s assets had risen consistently in recent years, growing from $323,118 in 2019 to $551, 330 in 2020 to $754,940 in 2021.

The organization has two options as to what to do with the remaining assets: distribute them to other nonprofits or sell them, according to the IRS.

McLaughlin said while he didn’t have any insight into why the decision was made to dissolve COA, “I’m so proud of the accomplishments of the volunteers and appreciative of all the donors. We did amazing things. Those are the memories I cherish. They defined a big chapter of my life.”

In her email announcing COA’s dissolution, Bielinski wrote: “I want to THANK YOU from the bottom of my heavy heart for being any part of this small but mighty organization. COA would simply not be possible without the partnerships we’ve had over the years on all fronts from employees to volunteers, from donors to sponsors and everything else.  It is my sincere hope that we all keep the cause alive in our hearts and our actions.”

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  1. Where did the money go??? A recent article from another source said they were awarded over $3 million in the last year. Where did the money go???? What were the salaries? Inquiring minds want to know….

  2. There really is no practical oversight on non-profits. In theory the IRS has responsibility but funding for enforcement seems to be a popular thing for the Federal government to cut. (Don’t have to wonder why.) Beyond that it takes a whistleblower.

  3. I did their paddle event in ‘21 (it was actually cxlld due to hurricane so i did it solo) and in ‘22.
    I registered for the ‘23 event. I knew something wasn’t right when the fundraising page never became active. I called and emailed and never got any response. The event was canceled in a very unprofessional and noncommunicative way… It was very disappointing as I travel quite a distance for the event. The registration fee was never offered back, and, I got an odd and vague communiqu that they were keeping all the registration fees as a forced donation so to speak. It’s not the money so much, but I thought that was really rotten. Now that I know they have all this money laying around… It makes me even more angry! And again, it’s not about the money, per se… It’s about unprofessionalism, dishonesty, and lack of communication. Not OK! I think the work that this organization did and what they stood for, is amazing, and I wish they hadn’t needed to fold. I hope the money goes to similar/like causes to preserve and protect the shoreline.

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