Innovation Ecosystem

Where is the urgency to clean up toxic Allens Avenue?

In the wake of the latest incident, a fire caused when workers were finally cutting up an abandoned submarine at RI Recycled Metals, under a legal order that took nearly a decade to enforce, the question is: will it spur the R.I. General Assembly to enact the Rescue Rhode Island Act?

Photo from Frank Carini

The view from Allens Avenue, in a photograph taken in 2019.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/15/21
The fire at a metal recycling firm located on Allens Avenue may prove to be an even that spurs the R.I. General Assembly to take action on a package of new bills being promoted by Renew RI, a coalition of grassroots groups.
When will the hospitals, Care New England and Lifespan, involved in a proposed merger with Brown, speak out on a proposed medical waste facility and give voice to public health concerns? How can the coalition of neighborhood groups find a way to leverage support from the Providence Innovation District, a few hundred yards up the road from Allens Avenue? Beyond asthma, what are the other chronic diseases that may be connected with industrial pollution coming from Allens Avenue companies?
New environmental research and scholarship, including works by two Rhode Island writers, Kerri Arsenault and Rebecca Altman, are attempting to reframe the discussion around plastics, an important conversation to have, particularly as Rhode Island begins to plan for investments in what is know as the Blue Economy, around industries connected the ocean. The manufacturing of plastics and their ubiquitous presence in our world – in our bodies, in our rivers, in our oceans, in marine life and in coastal birds – should serve as a warning sign about the long-term consequences for our health.

PROVIDENCE – This week, the R.I. General Assembly will begin hearing testimony on a comprehensive legislative package of three bills – one to build green affordable housing, a second to support sustainable food production, and a third to protect clean air and water – under the umbrella of what’s known as the Rescue Rhode Island Act.

The legislative package is being actively promoted by Renew Rhode Island, a coalition of 21 grassroots organizations, which is mounting an aggressive, online public relations campaign to encourage Rhode Islanders to testify in support of the three bills that address the issues of racial, climate, and economic justice.

The campaign’s goal is to create a groundswell of support to make sure that the Rescue Rhode Island Act does not die in committees but instead is sent to the floor for a vote, in both the Senate and the House.

An act of God?
Right on cue, last week, on Tuesday morning, March 9, a billowing cloud of dark smoke erupted from a fire at RI Recycled Metals, an unlicensed scrap yard located along Allens Avenue, temporarily blotting out the blue skies over Providence and Narragansett Bay. In many ways, the fire served as a warning shot across the bow of the R.I. General Assembly, reminding legislators about exactly what is at stake.

The source of the fire turned out to be a decommissioned Russian submarine, which had once briefly served as a floating museum before it sank. The submarine was finally being cut up for scrap, after more than 10 years of litigation pursued by the state of Rhode Island to force the company to remove the sub from the water and then cut it up for disposal.

Apparently, a rubber seal inside the metal of the submarine hull ignited while workers were cutting the hull into pieces with welding torches, according to Providence firefighters, as reported in a story in Uprise RI by Steve Ahlquist.

An industrial wasteland
Allens Avenue is the home to toxic industrial businesses and strip clubs – what retired pediatrician Dr. Peter Simon, at a Jan. 8, 2020, gathering to oppose a planned waste transfer station, referred to bluntly as the source of the state’s leading exports: metal scrap waste, and syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases from the strip clubs. [See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “A deep dive down toxic avenue in Providence,” and “We are not the dumpster; we are not a sacrifice zone.”]

For years, residents have been fighting back against the toxic deluge; last year they were successful in turning back a proposed waste transfer station, organizing a coalition of neighborhood associations.

The issue often comes down to zoning, as Linda Perri, chair of the Washington Park Association, explained in a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, in the aftermath of the submarine fire.

“It all comes down to zoning,” she said. “It’s easier to keep something out that is not there yet than it is to get rid of something that is already there.”

The submarine fire is the latest in a series of near disasters in the past decade, including: an ethanol train derailment; a fuel truck overturning and spilling its contents on Route 95; and a gas pipeline explosion.

“That is why we need bold legislation to change the Port [of Providence] now,” Monica Huertas, a community activist, told Uprise RI, in the aftermath of the most recent fire. She shared with UpRise RI her comments that she sent to legislators in support of the Rescue Rhode Island Act.

“It all got started for me after having to take my young child to the hospital seven times in one year because of their intense asthma attacks from the polluted air,” Huertas said. “While Rhode Island as a whole has the ninth-highest asthma rates in the country, Providence has the highest asthma rate in the state. Kids like mine are frequently sent to the emergency room from breathing the polluted air in our neighborhood.”

The evidence about the deleterious health impacts has never been in doubt. No one disputes the fact that, as Linda Perri said at the meeting opposing the waste transfer station in early January of 2020, “Air and traffic pollution in and around Allens Avenue and the Port of Providence is out of control.”

Or, as Julian Drix from the R.I. Department of Health said at the same meeting: “It’s not just about poverty. It’s about racism,” providing the statistics that showed that Providence was at the epicenter of an epidemic of asthma. The community where the waste transfer station was to be proposed has the “highest overall burden of asthma” in the state, according to Drix.

Facing off in court
In a response to series of questions from ConvergenceRI, Michael Healy, communications spokesperson from the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, put the legal struggle to force the clean up of the sunken submarine in the context of how long it took to force accountability under the enforcement powers of the agency.

“Since 2010, the state has taken several legal actions against Rhode Island Recycled Metals LLC [RIRM] to force the company to comply with environmental regulations, including removing the submarine and other submerged vessels from the Providence River,” Healey said. “Although this process has stretched out longer than DEM wants, we continue to work on enforcing the earlier court orders to hold the company accountable.”

DEM has been coordinated its enforcements with the R.I. Attorney General’s office since 2015, according to Healey. He provided a list of actions that have been taken in this matter.

• May 2012: DEM issues a notice of violation [NOV] for discharging stormwater into the Providence River without a permit.

• July 2013: Consent agreement signed. RIRM agrees to maintain short-term mitigative actions to prevent pollution, complete construction of stormwater controls by Sept. 30, 2014, and remove all derelict vessels from the river by Dec. 30, 2014.

• March 2015: Complaint filed, TRO issued restricting activities at the site. The complaint is for violations of RI’s Oil Pollution Control Act and Water Pollution Act, DEM water quality regulations, RI Pollution Discharge Elimination System [RIPDES] regs, and oil pollution control regs.

• February/March 2016: Evidentiary hearings held in Superior Court.

• July 2016: Special Master appointed. This is in response to the Attorney General’s and DEM’s March 2015 lawsuit. RIRM and another scrap company, AARE, are required to deposit $50,000 into an escrow account to cover the Special Master’s fees and expenses.

• November 2016: Order restricting site activities.

• December 2016: First vessel removal order. Establishing Special Master's oversight and control of removal process.

• January 2017: Amended vessel removal order. Update to terms after December requirements were not met. Additional detail provided.

• May 2017: Second amended Vessel removal order. Update to terms after January requirements were not met. Additional detail provided.

• October 2018: Interim vessel removal order. Special Master to engage marine engineer and develop detailed Gantt chart for timeline of vessel removal.

• March 2019: Interim vessel removal order. Requiring daily and weekly updates on progress.

• June 2019: Interim vessel removal order specific to pulling the sub.

• November 2019: Interim vessel removal order. Update to terms, including removal memorandum.

“A number of these vessel removal orders and interim vessel removal orders occurred in response to the state pushing the Court and Special Master to enforce earlier orders,” Healey said.

Translated, the wheels of justice have ground very, very slowly in attempting to protect Rhode Island residents from the apparent unwillingness of the owners of the metal recycling facility to clean up their toxic mess.

Beyond protest
Linda Perri, the chair of the Washington Park Association, has lived in the Allens Avenue neighborhood for 40 years and, for the last eight years, she has emerged as a strong voice urging the city and the state to clean up the toxic landscape of Allens Avenue.

She would like to see many of the polluting industries relocate, if possible, to Quonset or Davisville. Perri is also calling for an aggressive tree-planting initiative – to plant 100 trees a year for five years, in order to create a larger canopy for her neighborhood of Washington Park, which she described as having the least amount of tree cover of any neighborhood in the city.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Linda Perri, conducted in the aftermath of the submarine fire.

ConvergenceRI: How did you hear about the fire?
PERRI: I got phone calls and texts and emails about it, right after it occurred. Then I spoke to several people about it – Save the Bay, Steve Ahlquist, and Monica Huertas, who is involved with the environmental justice movement.

I spoke with a [fire department] lieutenant, who told me about the fire, that it was a rubber fire, [caused] as they were dismantling the submarine. It could have been worse. But it was contained.

The fire occurred at R.I. Recycled Metals, which the Attorney General has been trying to get them to leave that location for a long time. It is a blight upon Allens Avenue.

Originally, they had been processing computers, with all kinds of heavy toxic metals, and they had to change their plans. [The site] is full of metal and refrigerators and Freon, with all kinds of horrible stuff in it, which leaches into the water of the Bay. It’s an eyesore – and a health hazard.

The [company] has been fined, and we want them to leave. But there is a legal process, I suppose, that is in play.

ConvergenceRI: It seems like the legal process has been going on for years.
PERRI: Yes, for years. DEM had mandated that they remove the submarine.

ConvergenceRI: What will it take to change the political equation for Allens Avenue?
PERRI: It is going to take a lot of heavy lifting. With the city, whenever I complain about anything, all I get is the same standard answer: “We’re zoned for that; it’s zoned for those industries.”

It’s frustrating, because we’d like them to leave. But they’ve been there for ever and ever, along with the strip clubs. It’s like their last stand; there is nowhere else for them to go. There are a lot more people living here now, and they are being victimized by the pollution. Back in the 1940s, when the Narragansett Improvement Company [first arrived], it was a no-man’s land, but not anymore. It’s populated now.

ConvergenceRI: Your group and your allies proved to be very effective in fighting back against the proposed waste transfer station.
PERRI: Yes. It is easier to keep something out that is not there yet, then it is to get rid of something that is already there, unless they move.

ConvergenceRI: How difficult has it been for you to feel that your voice is being heard?
PERRI: I have lived here for 40 years, and I have been really complaining about Allens Avenue for the past eight years. But now, there’s a movement, and it’s different, some city councilors are involved, and politicians are looking at it a little bit differently.

And, the health impacts are indisputable. There are legitimate medical reasons why we need to clean this up as well. Also, we need to plant more trees, to create a better air quality down here. We have [what are known as] heat islands – the hospital parking lots, the court parking lots, and Allens Avenue itself. We need to tree up Allens Avenue, big time. We need to plant a hundred trees a year, for the next five years.

Because Washington Park is the neighborhood [with the fewest amount of trees in all of Providence. It has the least amount of canopy. We know that where there are more trees, the air is cleaner.

ConvergenceRI: Do you feel that people are listening more now?
PERRI: Oh, God, yes. Absolutely. I think that the fact that the [proposed waste] transfer station – that whole debacle that didn’t happen – was opposed by a coalition of neighborhood associations, of which Washington Park association is part.

Your friend, Dr. Peter Simon, was instrumental. So was the head of the medical clinic down in South Providence [Dr. Andrew Saal, CMO at Providence Community Health Centers]. Meeting Street got involved; all that brought a lot of attention.

It wasn’t just people complaining, saying: “We can’t have this here, it doesn’t belong here.” It became a movement, and it was a successful movement.

The cleaning up of Allens Avenue is entrenched in politics. We can still protest, we can still complain to go DEM, and try to get companies to follow the rules, and then be caught on violations when they don’t follow the rules. There’s a lot of breaking of the rules down here.

ConvergenceRI: Can you give an example?
PERRI: Take Sprague [Operating Resources, LLC]. They have all these giant tanks. They changed the content of one of their tanks to liquid asphalt. We were being poisoned by this noxious smell. Everybody thought it was gas, because it had sort of this petroleum, gassy odor. But it wasn’t the gas company spewing out that odor; it was Sprague.

They changed the content of one of their tanks to liquid asphalt, but they did not improve or replace or upgrade their air-scrubbing equipment on the top of their tank.

So every time they would get a delivery, and the liquid asphalt would fill up the tank, it would push out all this smelly air. That’s what we were smelling, and it would linger for days, and it was awful. You could smell it all the way at Rhode Island Hospital. It was all over the place.

ConvergenceRI: I was one of the first people to report on that in September of 2016. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The courage to speak out.” Would you be willing to give a tour for Gov. Dan McKee?
PERRI: I would love to. You know, we had a similar tour, what they called a toxic tour, organized by Monica and Julian Drix. I think that’s a great idea. We could get a bus tour organized with some of our local representatives.

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