Innovation Ecosystem

The stench that is eating the Providence waterfront?

DEM finally takes action on noxious odors apparently emanating from an Allens Avenue firm's storage facility, allegedly related to the storage of asphalt products – three years after ConvergenceRI first reported on residents' complaints about a persistent odor

Photo courtesy of Sprague Operating Resources website

The image from the website showing the location of Sprague Operating Resources, LLC, storage facility in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/20/19
The decision by R.I. DEM to issue a notice of violation against a firm, Sprague Operating Resources, for its facility allegedly being the source of noxious odors related to the storage of liquid asphalt and road grade asphalt, comes three years after ConvergenceRI first reported on residents' complaints about a noxious stench emanating from Allens Avenue.
Beyond the bad smell, is the state willing to investigate whether the airborne contaminant is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, which has been linked to both short-term and long-term health impacts? Does R.I. DEM have the capability to test for PAH contamination? What changed in the stance of R.I. DEM regarding its willingness to be more aggressive in pursuing complaints about the odors on Allens Avenue? What are the potential health hazards from the storage of liquid asphalt and road grade asphalt near Rhode Island Hospital and Women & Infants Hospital? How will the new Providence Innovation and Design District and its innovation ecosystem interact with the polluting reality of Allens Avenue, if and when the odor wafts over the new Wexford Innovation Complex?
ConvergenceRI has worked collaboratively with ecoRI News on a number of stories, including this one published in 2016. Most recently, ConvergenceRI republished Frank Carini’s story, "A deep dive down Toxic Avenue in Providence,” a journey covering the waterfront where mountains of scrap metal and hills of asphalt reign. The two news operations have also collaborated on a public information effort, Bee Vigilant, seeking to protect children, families, pets and pollinators from toxic pesticides and lawn chemicals.
Such collaborative partnerships across digital platforms are much too scarce in the competitive world of news gathering. As much as pundits bemoan the disappearance of local news, the fact is that ecoRI News, ConvergenceRI and UpriseRI provide a consistent, accurate and in-depth sources of local news reporting that is more comprehensive than what most of what is being produced by the usual suspects in the main stream news media.
We may not get invited to participate in the coffee klatches that Gov. Gina Raimondo holds regularly with the news media; we not always get responses to our phone calls and emails asking questions; but we do get the story, and we publish it.

PROVIDENCE – The details from a Friday afternoon news dump on May 17 by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management had a distinct odor. The state agency had “issued a Notice of Violation to a Providence business for alleged environmental violations arising from the receipt, distribution and storage of liquid asphalt products located along the Providence waterfront on Allens Avenue,” according to the news release.

The Notice of Violation, issued against Sprague Operating Resources, LLC, carried a $22,500 fine for the firm’s alleged violations of the R.I. Code of Regulations titled “Odors,” which prohibits the release of any air contaminant that creates an objectionable odor beyond the property’s line, according to the news release.

The action by DEM had followed numerous complaints regarding odors following the firm’s decision to convert two storage tanks – Tank 1 and Tank 6 – to store liquid asphalt or road grade asphalt beginning in September of 2017.

However, concern about the stink emanating from Allens Avenue, allegedly tied to asphalt products, were first raised three years ago, in a story published on Sept. 25, 2016, by ConvergenceRI. [See link below to story, “The courage to speak out.”]

What took so long?
If the past is prologue, re-reading the 2016 story can prove to be instructive. It began: “Recently, when residents detected a pungent petroleum odor that was hanging in the air like smog over their Fox Point neighborhood, repeatedly, for many days during the summer months, causing a burning sensation in their eyes and throats, they contacted state authorities to urge them to investigate.

First, they called the R.I. Department of Health; in turn, the health agency referred them to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management.

In a conversation with DEM, when one of the residents asked the agency to investigate the pungent petroleum odor, the DEM representative asked if the resident could pinpoint the potential source.

The resident told DEM that they were unsure of the source, explaining that it appeared to be emanating from the industrial area in the vicinity of the IWay Bridge, which connects Route 95 and 195.

The story, co-written with Frank Carini of ecoRI News, followed up with a series of questions asked – to state health and environmental officials, public health researchers and advocates, and environmental advocates – about what to do in response. Here is the next part of the story:

Reaching out
What does a citizen do when confronting an alleged environmental hazard that could prove injurious to public health? Good question.

One of the residents reached out to ConvergenceRI. In turn, ConvergenceRI reached out to ecoRI News, the best source for environmental reporting in Rhode Island, to ask if they would consider working together on a collaborative story.

Listening to citizens
The lesson history often teaches us, if we are willing to listen, whether it is in Love Canal in the 1970s or in Flint, Mich., 40 years later, is a fundamental truth: it is ordinary citizens speaking up as a community – and demanding that reticent and reluctant government officials take action to protect the public health of the community – that will force the issue out into the open.

Ordinary citizens are the ones living on the front lines, who much like the character of Miss Clavell in Madeline, sense that “something is not right.”

And, sometimes, it is the legal pursuit of the culprits that helps to preserve the public health, captured in the phrase coined by environmental lawyer and activist Victor Yannacone in 1970, “Sue the bastards.”

Pursuit of the facts
ConvergenceRI first reached out to DEM to ask if the agency had received any recent complaints about pungent petroleum orders in the Fox Point neighborhood and surrounding areas; the DEM representative said that no such complaints had been received.

Next, ConvergenceRI reached out to a number of epidemiologists and pubic health experts to ask what procedures should a resident follow in reporting and tracking a potential public health threat.

To Joseph Braun, assistant professor of Epidemiology and Epidemiology Master’s Program Director at the Brown University School of Public Health, ConvergenceRI asked:

A couple of folks have contacted me regarding a pervasive odor of petroleum in their Wickenden Street neighborhood, apparently coming from somewhere across the river, but they have been unable to identify the source.

The residents report that they have made a number of reports to the Department of Environmental Management about this, but I was wondering, from a scientific, epidemiological standpoint, what are the best ways to approach investigating this?

Given that citizens are often on the front lines of reporting environmental hazards, sometimes detected by smells, what should they do?

• Keep a record of times and places where the petroleum odor has occurred?

• Encourage neighbors to do the same thing?

• Work with local scientists to develop protocols?

Braun responded: “The first two things you propose would be reasonable first steps to determining the source of the smell. There are lots of reasons for funky smells, so it can be a difficult thing to pin down. Until there is something more concrete in terms of a source, it is hard to know what protocols to employ for assessing potential exposures.”

What the public health experts said
ConvergenceRI also reached out to a number of public health experts about what a resident should do.

One suggested that, in the future, a resident should call police in the town where the noxious smell is occurring, just to make sure that there is a record of the report.

Although R.I. DEM will ultimately need to decide whether or not to investigate, the public health expert said, having an independent agency such as the police record the complaints may be important somewhere along the path to getting an answer.

Another public health expert suggested that it would be important for numerous people to make calls to the DEM, in order to give the complaint more weight.

A third public health expert suggested that given that it appeared to be an airborne contaminant, requests should be made to DEM to receive copies of all air quality permits in the area in question, as well as any violations. The process to do that could take some time, the expert said.

What the citizens advocacy group said
ConvergenceRI also reached out to Save The Bay, a citizens’ advocacy group focused on the protection of Narragansett Bay, about what were the best activities for citizens to follow.

Cindy Sabato, director of communications at Save The Bay, suggested the following: “Keeping a record of times and places where a possible pollution event has occurred is a great idea, and provides the responding agency with data it can use to investigate the issue.”

The more individual people or households, Sabato continued, “who keep notes on times and places of possible pollution, and the more people or households that complain separately, the better, in terms of communicating a sense of urgency and citizen concern about a possible problem.”

Sabato said that working with government agencies is a critical component: “When Save The Bay suspects a water pollution event, or a community member contacts us about a suspected pollution event, we directly contact R.I. DEM or whatever is the most appropriate agency or group, and then work with them in whatever way is appropriate.”

In this particular case, Sabato suggested reaching out to the DEM Air Quality Office or contacting the agency emergency response team.

The potential culprit, it turned out, according to an environmental scientist, was an airborne contaminant, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH. It was noticeable in the recent Notice of Violation issued by R.I. DEM that no mention was made of the possible link to PAH, its short-term or long-term health symptoms, or whether R.I. DEM had the scientific capability and resources to measure emissions of PAH.

The story continued:

What an environmental scientist said
ConvergenceRI also spoke with a local environmental scientist who suggested a possible alleged source of the pungent petroleum odor as well as identifying a possible alleged airborne contaminant.

The airborne contaminant that the scientist suggested that ConvergenceRI ask the state agencies to investigate is called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, which are present in products made from fossil fuels, including asphalt, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Illinois Department of Public Health. Further, the agency fact sheet identified potential short-term symptoms of exposure to PAH to include eye irritation, nausea and vomiting.

Long-term exposure has been linked to a number of serious health problems.

One potential alleged source of the pungent odor to investigate, according to the scientist, might be the Narragansett Improvement Co. located on Allens Avenue, which is a leading hot mix asphalt plant serving Rhode Island and Massachusetts, according to the company’s website.

“When you smell polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” the scientist told ConvergenceRI, “it’s what you smell when you smell asphalt.”

Often, when the scientist drove past the facility, the scientist told ConvergenceRI, “I can really smell it.”

There could be, of course, numerous other potential sources of the pungent petroleum order emanating from industrial properties along Allens Avenue. It would be up to the state agencies to determine if there are emissions of PAH occurring, and if they exceed regulatory standards, and where such emissions were coming from.

Asking the questions
ConvergenceRI reached out to the Narragansett Improvement Company to see if there had been any complaints received or if the company monitored emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on site.

The owners had left for the day, and the representative said that they would get back to ConvergenceRI on Monday morning. The representative also said that she knew of no such problems.

On the company’s website, under the heading, “Company Commitment to Safety,” it says: “Narragansett strives to provide a safe work environment for its employees, customers and the public on all our projects. All employees are OSHA 10 certified, [with a] comprehensive safety program emphasizing employee commitment to a safe work environment.”

A story or a solution?
The scientist recommended that the residents call DEM, but to complain separately. The scientist also recommended that the Fox Point residents might want to contact a group such as the Environmental Justice League, which is active in South Providence addressing the burdens from health disparities caused by environmental pollution.

The burden of speaking out
For the residents who first raised the complaint, there comes with it the burden of speaking out, with the courage to confront agencies and to be persistent.

One of the residents recently told ecoRI News that the chemical smell has been lingering in the neighborhood for a number of months.

“It can be oppressive, burning your eyes and throat,” the resident said. “Most days you experience it, like smog, it’s just sitting there, you can't escape it, even if you close your windows.”

One final note: A few weeks ago, ConvergenceRI was contacted by a representative from the R.I. Department of Health, Julian Drix, who asked about the 2016 story and whether ConvergenceRI could share it with him. Why the renewed interest? The answer: “It was relevant to an issue I was speaking about with another agency and I wanted to provide reference to show that the odors in the area have been a noticeable concern for an extended period of time. I sent them the direct link to the article.”


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