Innovation Ecosystem

An annual check in and check up on the health of Narragansett Bay

ConvergenceRI talked with Jonathan Stone and Mike Jarbeau of Save The Bay about how they are navigating the challenges ahead in protecting Narragansett Bay

Photo by Richard Asinof

Baykeeper Mike Jarbeau and Executive Director Jonathan Stone outside Save The Bay headquarters in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/25/18
The success of removing nitrogen and bacteria pollution from Narragansett Bay has revealed a series of emerging contaminants that threaten the health of the bay, including plastic pollution. The revitalization of the Bay, in turn, has played a critical role in attracting new investment and new businesses to the state.
Will more transparency around issues of enforcement on the Bay provide more impetus for the R.I. General Assembly to invest in more funding for enforcement activities? Despite the threats from federal policy changes in Washington, D.C., what are the kinds of local actions that Rhode Island residents can become involved with? Is there a way to quantify the economic development investments that have occurred as a result of a cleaner Bay? Does there need to be an updated study of the mercury content of fish in Narragansett Bay? What kinds of actions need to be taken to adopt and adapt to climate change and rising ocean levels, beyond words?
Narragansett Bay, in so many ways, defines Rhode Island culture and its prosperity. It is as much a part of the state’s emerging innovation ecosystem as new developments in the former Jewelry District. All summer long, it seems, we celebrate its bounty. Protecting it and preserving it needs to become part of our political consciousness.

PROVIDENCE – Ask Baykeeper Mike Jarbeau of Save The Bay what is most noticeable when he is out on Narragansett Bay, it is the increasing number of people who are on the water, fishing and boating.

“In my opinion, the single most significant change on the water I’ve seen is the number of recreational fishing boats on the Providence River,” he said. In terms of emerging threats, Jarbeau continued, what he has observed was a growing magnitude of plastic pollution, which is becoming ubiquitous and has been proven to be difficult to clean up and remove.

Ask Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, what the greatest challenges are in protecting the Bay, and he will talk about completing the third phase of the Combined Sewage Overflow project, which will, for the most part, completely eliminate the major sources of nitrogen and bacterial contamination of Narragansett Bay. But, what the success of the ongoing clean-up efforts has revealed is the now more visible threat from emerging contaminants.

“Emerging contaminants, they are not emerging because they are just arriving, but because the focus of the regulatory community has been primarily on bacteria and nitrogen,” Stone said. “But there is this whole category of emerging contaminants that are known to effect marine organisms and human health.”

Ask them both together what the most difficult political argument they face in advocating for continued protection of the Bay, and they will talk about the continued use of what they say is a tired old complaint that further regulation and enforcement somehow impedes economic development, when all the studies point to the opposite conclusion: a cleaner Bay has spurred a real estate boom along the waterfront, making Rhode Island more attractive to businesses.

“Just drive along Allens Avenue and look over to East Providence and look at the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested on the waterfront there, and that’s all because of the clean up of the Bay,” Stone said.

“People move here, businesses move here, partly because of the recreational opportunities [provided by Narragansett Bay],” Stone continued. “But when you run a business and you pollute, somebody else pays the bill. When anyone creates environmental damage, they’re inflicting that on others. You want to prevent pollution, so you’re not stuck with the cost of cleaning it up,” explained Stone, referring to what he said economists often call externalities, even if the costs are real.

Here is the ConvergenceRI with Jonathan Stone and Mike Jarbeau of Save The Bay, as a kind of annual check in and check up on the health of Narragansett Bay, which could be considered the 40th community of Rhode Island, touching the lives of most residents.

ConvergenceRI: How has Save The Bay stepped up its advocacy efforts to galvanize Rhode Islanders about the current threats to Narragansett Bay?
From a high level [overview], we think our mission, simply put, is to protect and improve the Bay. From a larger geographic sense, that means to protect and improve the Bay, the watershed and coastal Rhode Island.

Our mission is really built around three major components: water quality; habitat and wildlife biodiversity; and government and policy.

In our work as an advocate, we’re spending most of our time focused on those three basic dimensions. Each one of those categories has their own specific set of concerns and priorities.

From a water quality point of view, the job has been, in the last decade and half, to reduce nitrogen discharges and complete both the Providence and Newport combined sewage overflow projects [CSOs].

As I’m sure you are aware, Rhode Island wastewater treatment plants that discharge directly into the Bay have reduced their discharges by about 64 percent.

The major Massachusetts wastewater treatment plants have also reduced their discharges of phosphorous and nitrogen dramatically. In Worcester, it’s the Upper Blackstone Water Pollution Abatement District. I believe the number is around 60 percent.

In terms of nitrogen reduction, the results have been substantial; it’s been a major step forward.

There are two distinct issues: one is reducing nitrogen, which is too much fertilizer in the Bay; and the other is bacteria, which affects public health, ultimately, but also affects aquatic health.

And completion of the combined sewage overflow project is important, because any time you have a rain event, you get raw sewage discharges or relatively untreated discharges into the Bay, whether it is in Providence or in Newport.

In Providence, the Narragansett Bay Commission project has completed two out of three phases; the third phase, which impacts East Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, will eliminate or reduce by 95 percent the discharges that come through the Bucklin Point plant, which is in East Providence.

That’s a big deal. That will basically eliminate the number of raw sewage discharges, unless there were very rare circumstances.

It’s very expensive; it’s $600 or $700 million, but it will permanently correct the last remaining major source of bacterial pollution in the Bay. Phase Three is a big deal.

ConvergenceRI: Are there new kinds of contaminants that are becoming more prevalent in the Bay? Are there any ongoing studies of what the effects of those contaminants are on marine life and public health?
: The term is emerging contaminants. The questions include: where are the gaps in research? How much of these contaminants are making it into the estuary? How are they bio-accumulating? How are they affecting marine organisms and ultimately, the health of people?

One big concern is with PFOs and PFOAs, the chemical that was used in manufacturing Teflon. They have been flagged as a serious environmental concern.

There are other emerging contaminants, such as personal pharma products, which people are disposing of them by flushing them down the toilet.

ConvergenceRI: You are what you flush?
We are, in fact. It’s the entire nitrogen cycle. You are what you eat. The flush is what you eat. We ingest nitrogen and discharge nitrogen.

The whole emergent contaminants issue is a big deal. It will require a lot of research. The question is: what do you do about it? From a wastewater treatment process point of view, it has introduced a whole new category. Potential remedies may or may not be able to be handled by a wastewater plant.

I don’t know the answer to that.

I think it’s the case that we don’t know what we don’t know at this point. I think we’re at a major transition point. We have been chasing the nitrogen and bacteria issues from sewage plants as the major point source of pollution for so long, we’ve finally gotten to the point where we’ve gotten over that hurdle. And, now, we’re learning about other emerging contaminants that we don’t know much about yet.

ConvergenceRI: Some critics have questioned whether the completion of Phase Three of the combined sewage overflow project is too expensive, downplaying how important it will be to the health of the Bay. How do you respond to such arguments?
What’s the value of being able to walk out your door and swim in the Bay, to take a fishing pole and toss a line in? Just drive along Allens Avenue and look over to East Providence and look at the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in real estate development on the waterfront. That’s all because of the clean up of the Bay. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

ConvergencERI: There is often a dogmatic anti-regulatory message, about how environmental protection is impeding business. How do you respond to that?
My first reaction is to say that this was something that was the talk of the day in the 1970s. We need to put this debate behind us.

In Rhode Island, the clean up of Narragansett Bay is part and parcel with economic development and job creation and making the state an attractive place to raise a family.

JARBEAU: It’s a hard question to answer because the answer is so obvious.

STONE: Study after study has shown that environmental improvements bring with it other benefits, including business development.

People want to live in an area where they can enjoy the Bay. People move here, businesses move here, partly because of the recreational opportunities.

ConvergenceRI: Some have raised issues about competing interests between the commercial fisheries and the development of offshore wind turbines, in particular, the potential impact of the scallop fisheries. Is that a legitimate concern?
I’m very familiar with scalloping. It’s been one of the most successful fishing industries on the East Coast over the last couple of decades, with all the new management techniques they have implemented, such as rotational access areas.

STONE: I heard a figure from the former head of NOAA Marine Fisheries in the North Atlantic that the scallop fishery and the Maine lobster fishery are two of the most sustainable and important economic fisheries on the East Coast, each bringing in approximately $500 million a year.

ConvergenceRI: Do you believe that the wind turbines present a threat to them?
in my opinion, and it’s an opinion, these turbines are not located in prime scalloping grounds.

Obviously, fishermen are worried about the expansion into new areas. We can all see the writing on the wall that wind is probably the future, and there is a lot of interest in developing it.

I don’t think any of us want to see the commercial fishing industry go away.

STONE: The Bay belongs to all of us, so we have to figure out what those compromises are for different uses.

ConvergenceRI: Mike, because you are out on the Bay, almost every day…
I wish it was every day.

ConvergenceRI: What are you observing?
In my opinion, the single most significant change on the water I’ve seen is the number of recreational fishing on the Providence River.

It means that the Bay is alive, and people are enjoying it.

But, on the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of momentum pushing things such as plastic bag bans, Styrofoam bans, and plastic straw bands in response the growing problem of plastic pollution.

Not a day goes by where I don’t have to scoop up significant amounts of plastic, and depending on the wind conditions, it washes up on shore here.

Our shoreline here at Save The Bay has to be one of the most heavily cleaned up sites on the Bay, with all of our volunteer efforts. But, day in and day out, the amount of plastic pollution is overwhelming.

STONE: The plastic pollution issue is really serious because of its persistence, meaning that it doesn’t biodegrade but breaks down into smaller and smaller bits; it is hard to clean up. We are finding on the shoreline, you can pick up fistfuls of plastic bits that you can’t clean up on a beach clean up, you have to bulldoze the whole beach to get rid of all the plastic.

JARBEAU: The challenge that we’re all seeing is that this isn’t just a boater or a beachgoer issue, this is a watershed issue.

Editor's Note: The Ocean Vovlo Race had, as its slogan this year, #TurnTheTideOnPlastic.


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