Innovation Ecosystem

Chapter 2: We are not the dumpster, we are not a sacrifice zone

Sen. President Ruggerio, City Council President Matos, the Meeting Street School, and the Providence Community Health Centers all voice opposition to the proposed waste transfer station on Allens Avenue

Photo by Richard Asinof

Providence City Council President Sabina Matos holds a blown-up image of the proposed location of the waste transfer station at the intersection of Allens Avenue and Thurbers Avenue in Providence.

Photo by Richard Asinof

From left: State Sen. Ana Quezada, state Sen. Josh MIller, Providence City Councilor Pedro Espinal, and reporter Tim Faulkner from ecoRI.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/24/20
Community organizers attempting to block a proposed waste transfer station on Allens Avenue have added top elected state and local officials to a diverse coalition opposing the project, an effort where ecoRI, Uprise RI, and ConvergenceRI have provided the major news coverage.
When will Gov. Gina Raimondo share her position about the proposed waste transfer station? Will the new Superintendent of Providence Public Schools, Harrison Peters, take a stand? How many students and teachers in the Providence Public Schools are afflicted with asthma? Will Rhode Island Kids Count oppose the new waste transfer facility? What is the role of the R.I. Department of Transportation in developing a traffic plan for a project that is projected to bring nearly 200 large trucks a day, six days a week, onto Allens Avenue, clogging the entrance and exit ramps to Interstate 95? Will the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute change its focus from clinical interventions around asthma to environmental prevention and protection activities? When will WPRI, the TV broadcast partner of the Meeting Street Telethon, devote more resources to covering the story of opposition to the waste transfer station?
There has been much ado about creating a long-term statewide health plan for Rhode Island, focused on bringing stakeholders together to make Rhode Island the healthiest state in the nation, with major investments by the Rhode Island Foundation to make it happen. Where does asthma prevention fit into that equation, given that it is major cause of chronic school absenteeism? How much money are the health systems willing to invest in addressing the root causes that trigger asthma – including air pollution from traffic, poor housing stock, lead paint prevalence, and sick school buildings?

PROVIDENCE – Once again, it was retail politics at its best. Local residents were joined by top state and city elected officials as well as by key health and education leaders, all of whom voiced strong opposition to a waste transfer station at the intersection of Allens Avenue and Thurbers Avenue proposed by the firm, Allens Providence Recycling LLC.

That was the “political scene” when a diverse coalition of community advocates, led by the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, were convened by Providence City Councilor Pedro Espinal at the Meeting Street School on Wednesday evening, Feb. 19, demonstrating a show of force around how political opposition has coalesced against the project.

The backstory
For those who may have been asleep at the wheel for the past few months, the plan by the Allens Providence Recycling firm, which would bring an estimated 188 diesel trucks a day, six days a week, to the proposed Allens Avenue location, bearing gifts of tons of construction debris and creating a constant cloud of dust, is pending before the Providence City Planning Commission, where no environmental impact study is required before moving ahead to approve the proposal.

Local community activists, led by Linda Perri of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, have been shouting: No! No! No! [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “We are not the dumpster.”]

But, when they attempted to bring that message to the Providence City Planning Commission at a scheduled meeting on Jan. 21, they were not allowed to testify, the lame reasoning given by Commission members was that there was no stenographer present to record what they would say.

[Editor's Note:An excellent story by Clara Gutman Argemi, a reporter with the Brown Daily Herald, documents how childhood asthma has burdened low-income communities in Providence. See link below to story.]

The political art of organizing

Instead of mourning, the community advocates organized, evidenced by the heavy hitters who spoke up against the proposed waste transfer station at the Feb. 19 gathering. They included:

Six state senators, led by R.I. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, and Sen. Joshua Miller, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, sent a two-page, strongly worded letter to Christine West, chair of the Providence City Planning Commission, and its members, saying that the proposed waste transfer station “is not the sort of development we should be pursuing along our valuable waterfront.” State Sen. Harold Metts was also a signatory.

Miller and state Sen. Ana Quezada, another signatory, spoke at the meeting, warning of the consequences that an increased air pollution burden and traffic gridlock that nearly 200 large diesel trucks a day carrying as much as 3,000 tons [some 6 million pounds] of construction debris and commercial waste will impose on the community, already a neighborhood besieged with some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.

Miller read the last paragraph of the letter to the crowd of nearly 60 attending the meeting: “This neighborhood is already bearing a tremendous environmental burden for the sake of the energy, waste management and transportation needs of the entire state,” he said. “Adding a waste transfer station would effectively acknowledge it was the dumping ground for pollution-making development in our state. We fervently urge you to reject this proposal.”

Translated, those are “fervently” strong words from the leadership of the Rhode Island Senate. [For some reason, the subsequent story in The Providence Journal published the next day was buried below the fold on Page 5, in an account that had also “buried the lede,” putting it seven paragraphs deep in the story, about how Senate leadership was taking a stand. Apparently, no photographer was assigned to cover the story.

Stark evidence about how the proposed waste transfer station would be like “pouring “gasoline on a fire” was given by Dr. Andrew Saal, chief medical officer at the Providence Community Health Centers, which serves some 8,000 residents in the community. Saal told the crowd that his community health center had just added a second asthma specialist to the staff to address the high number of patients who were afflicted with asthma and emphysema. [To the best of his knowledge, no other community health center in Rhode Island has two physicians dedicated to the practice of treating asthma, Saal told ConvergenceRI.]

Merrill Thomas, the president and CEO of Providence Community Health Centers who was attending the meeting, enthusiastically applauded Saal’s presentation.

Translated, when the major health provider serving the communities of Washington Park and South Providence has added a second dedicated physician to its staff, focused on treating an epidemic of asthma, the message is clear: Providence, we have a problem.

[That critical information somehow got left out of The Providence Journal story, perhaps an omission not by the reporter but by the copy editor located somewhere in the ether world of Gatehouse, hundreds of miles away from Rhode Island. On the positive side of the news ledger, reporter Madeleine List chose to begin her story with an adult, Taina Rosario, who spoke up at the gathering and said that she had never had asthma before moving to Washington Park; now she takes four different medications for her condition.]

• John Kelly, the long-time president and CEO of Meeting Street School, gave a brief, impassioned talk, saying there were no “ifs, ands, or buts” that the school, which serves some 500 kids every day, was opposed to the proposed waste station. Kelly had previously written a letter opposing the proposed waste transfer station.

Kelly, who cited the fact that there has been $30 million invested to build the Meeting Street School with work underway for another $15 million project at the education center, vowed to protect the children at Meeting Street and at other nearby neighborhood schools. “We are in this to the end,” he promised. “There is no way this is going forward.”

Kelly, who has built a network of strong corporate relationships and fundraising partnerships through the annual Meeting Street Telethon, also told the crowd that Dimeo Construction and Lifespan were also “on board” in opposition to the proposed waste transfer station.

Translated, the corporate backers of Meeting Street School, which include Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island as a perennial sponsor of its annual Telethon, are beginning to weigh in and tip the scale.

• The number of Providence City Councilors opposed to the planned waste transfer station continues to grow, with Council President Sabina Matos taking the opportunity to announce her support for a resolution by the Providence City Council opposing the planned waste transfer station.

While Matos’ opposition apparently gives the City Council a majority of its members to the proposed waste transfer station, the reality is that any such resolution is nonbinding when it comes to zoning matters. Former City Councilor Sam Zurier also spoke at the meeting, proposing that there may be an opportunity in the zoning laws to prevent the proposed waste transfer station from moving ahead.

Translated, community residents have successfully organized in a way to provide some backbone to City Council members to put neighborhood needs above developer desires and profits. [Once again, the story by The Providence Journal left out any details about what Matos and Zurier said, painting an incomplete picture about what had actually happened.]

• In a dialogue with Espinal, talking about the large volume of trucks, Providence Police Officer Joseph Amoroso, the city’s sole officer overseeing commercial vehicle enforcement, said the volume of the trucks and the design of proposed facility, would disrupt traffic, including access to Interstate 95, using a blown-up photograph of the proposed site that had been published by ecoRI. The developer, William Thibeault of Everett, Mass., has not yet submitted a traffic plan, according to Amoroso.

There was a back-and-forth discussion about what would happen to the already congested traffic flow, if the steady onslaught of large diesel trucks, projected to be 188 trucks transporting some 6 million pounds of waste daily to a facility operating from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week, created traffic jams. Where would the trucks go? How would they get on and off Interstate 95? What would happen at rush hour?

• Kevin Budros, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, made it clear the “waste does not belong in this neighborhood,” calling the proposed waste transfer station “a garbage depot” to deal with waste that the community did not create, “waste that this community will not have any control over once it gets here,” with most of the waste coming from out of state, not Rhode Island. Further, Budros said that the firm proposing the waste transfer station did not have any adequate plan to control dust or odors.

To answer the rhetorical argument that “the waste has to go somewhere,” Budros countered that there was no imperative from the state of Rhode Island saying that such a waste transfer station was needed.

[In response, one person sitting at the table with ConvergenceRI suggested, in jest, that maybe the state might consider locating the proposed waste transfer station on the former Route 195 land being redeveloped.]

Translated, the developer behind the project, William Thibeault, from Everett, Mass., may want to take heed. The Conservation Law Foundation had played a critical role in helping community groups fight the proposed Invenergy power station in Burrillville and defeat it.

[Editor’s Note: Both Tim Faulkner from ecoRI News and Steve Ahlquist from Uprise RI covered the meeting, providing much more thorough reporting about what happened than the Providence Journal, including videos of the numerous speakers. See links below to stories.]

Community activists pledged to make their voices heard at the March 17 meeting of the City Planning Commission and to canvas South Providence on Feb. 29 to collect signatures and build opposition to the project.

Connecting the dots
The day after the Feb. 19 gathering at Meeting Street School, Harrison Peters, the new Superintendent of Providence Public Schools, arrived for his first day on the job, a member of the national group, Chiefs for Change, recruited by the R.I. Education Commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green.

One of the biggest problems that Infante-Green has sought to address is chronic school absenteeism, promising to hold both students and teachers accountable. But despite the fact the major cause of chronic absenteeism is asthma, and Providence has one of the highest rates of asthma as documented by the R.I. Department of Health, tied to air pollution and poor housing conditions, that part of the conversation has been missing from the discussion around “solutions” around what to do.

In that context, a fascinating Twitter exchange occurred between Dr. Peter Simon, a retired pediatrician, and Barbara Mullen, Ph.D., the chief equity officer for the Providence Public Schools, illustrated the divide around addressing asthma as a cause of chronic student absenteeism.

Mullen tweeted on Saturday morning, Feb. 22: “Up early with @PVDschools educators and @equityinst continuing our levers to develop culturally responsive educators. It’s bout to get real…good,” tagging @AinfanteGreen, @HarrisonPeters, #4EquitySake and #4pvdkis, showing a visual of a poster for the Twitter Challenge beinig held that morning, sponsored by the Equity Institute.

Simon responded: “Does this include strategies to address chronic absenteeism? Do culturally responsive educators have solutions for kids with asthma?”

In turn, Mullen responded to Simon: “No training will ever address all symptoms of systemic barriers to educational access… but this specific training supports educators in creating conditions in which those barriers’ impacts are minimized. We’d love to have you in the conversation. Let’s connect!”

Simon responded: “Connect? Do you mean talk? Meet?”

Simon then wrote: “Went through lots of cultural competence training. Worked at PCHC and coached baseball in Providence for 30 years. Trying to raise issues for educators about health conditions in children’s homes and schools. Kids who are absent won’t benefit from culturally competent teachers.”

There it was, in plain Twitter-speak, the escalating disconnect that surrounds health and health care, education, and the threat of climate change, even the spread of the coronavirus: if you want to cure school absenteeism to improve educational outcomes, you need to prevent asthma by addressing the root causes, investing in prevention, not clinical interventions.

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