Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rhode Island Deserves a Level Playing Field in Environmental Enforcement

How a delay in enforcement costs Rhode Islanders

by Kendra Beaver, staff attorney, and Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy

A healthy Narragansett Bay and fair business climate require timely and consistent enforcement of regulations that protect, restore and improve our coastal resources. Rhode Island’s failure to provide its Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) with robust enforcement capacity is economically short-sighted and irresponsible. Enforcing environmental laws is critical if Rhode Island truly wants to encourage investment and create a level playing field in which clear and predictable regulations are consistently applied to all individuals and businesses.

The case of RI Recycled Metals (RIRM), which was allowed to operate its Allens Avenue scrapyard in blatant violation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws for more than four years, is a wake-up call on the consequences of lax or delayed enforcement. Consider this: 
  • Pollution from crushed automobiles, appliances and other sources was allowed to be dumped directly into the Providence River, a place cherished for recreational fishing and community boating programs. Despite inspections and many confirmed violations, RIRM continued to operate in violation of the law. The company ignored many warnings and letters ordering immediate action, as well as a Consent Agreement to take immediate steps to achieve compliance with the law. The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) failed to enforce the “Maintenance Certification” it issued.
  • RIRM gained a competitive advantage over other scrap processers who played by the rules by investing in stormwater pollution controls and abiding by their permits. Years of failure by the state to hold RIRM accountable contributes to the image of Rhode Island as a place where it “pays to pollute.” 
  • Taxpayers may wind up footing the bill for cleaning up this mess. The approximate cost to clean up and recap the site is $200,000 to $300,000, and to remove submerged and floating vessels at the site, another $2 million to $6 million. It is unclear whether or not RIRM has the assets to pay these costs. If not, the cost will likely fall to taxpayers. It would have been more cost-efficient to pay for staff at RIDEM to enforce the law in the first place. 

Rhode Island should never be known as a state where it pays to pollute. RIDEM’s enforcement capacity, which has been drastically cut over the past decade, must be restored. When RIDEM is sufficiently resourced, consistent enforcement of environmental laws creates a business-friendly culture, improves our environment and removes the competitive advantage of violation. 

The good news is that action has finally been taken to stop RIRM’s ongoing pollution of the Providence River. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin stepped in to assist a short-staffed RIDEM and commenced legal action against the company in the fall of 2014. At last, the case is proceeding as it should have many years ago. 

A Superior Court injunction prohibits scrap from being processed on site, vessels dismantled without permission and additional vessels and junk vehicles brought to the site. The order also requires the installation and maintenance of hay bales and silt fence along the shoreline, prohibits further disturbance to the shoreline and requires that all waste be disposed of by early May 2015. The Superior Court has prohibited RIRM from removing any assets from both locations on Allens Avenue to ensure there are some funds available for cleanup. RIRM has stated that it will prepare a plan to properly close the site and faces another court hearing in May. 

The bad news is that the Providence River and its shoreline have been contaminated. The site is a mess, with at least four corroding vessels in or under water, a damaged shoreline, and a disturbed “cap” that had been established to contain contaminated soils. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Climbing the ladder on the Ten Mile River

by Rachel Calabro, Community Organizer and Advocate for Save The Bay

Partners in the Ten Mile River Omega Pond fish ladder project
cut the ribbon at the official opening of the ladder.
After overcoming many technical challenges during design and construction, the Omega Pond fish ladder at the mouth of the Ten Mile River was finally completed, just in time for this year's spring fish run. Herring were waiting at the dam when the ladder was opened, and fish were seen making their way to Hunt's Mill where an annual fish count is done by volunteers.

Save The Bay's connection to this project began in 1996, when Paul Bettencourt, a local fisherman who began stocking the Ten Mile with river herring in the early 1960s  took Save The Bay's Director of Habitat Restoration Wenley Ferguson on a tour of the Seekonk River.
Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay Director
of Habitat Restoration
While showing Wenley places where he used to fish for herring as a boy - places that have since been destroyed due to filling - Paul stopped at the Omega Pond dam and shared his vision of restoring a self-sustaining fish run to the lower Ten Mile River. Paul knew that the lower river could support herring, thanks to his efforts along with many other local fisherman who would scoop the herring up and over the Omega Pond dam each spring. His vision was to create fish ladders at three dams including the Omega Pond dam, so that herring could swim freely up to the Turner Reservoir where they could spawn. 

Save The Bay shared Paul’s vision with the City of East Providence, which owned two of the three dams at the time. The City quickly embraced the vision and became a partner. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders, which became the blueprint for the project.  To fund the ladders, the partnership began relatively small. The Department of Environmental Management, Save The Bay and the city of Providence secured matching funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study back in 2001. Due to the complexity of the project and the expense, the partnership then expanded to include many federal agencies including National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Adminstration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state and local partners including the Coastal Resources Management Council, the R.I. Saltwater Anglers Association and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council. 

While the planning, design and funding was being finalized, the annual spring fish-scooping event that Paul began in the 1960s became celebrations as more and more fish returned and several thousand fish were helped over Omega Pond dam. Construction on the first ladder began at the Hunts Mill dam in 2012, then the Turner Reservoir ladder and finally the Omega Pond fish ladder in 2014.

The Omega Pond fish ladder during construction.
Now that three fish ladders are in place, herring have three river miles and about 340 acres of habitat in which to spawn. They can now make their way to the Massachusetts state line, where they find the next dam at the Pawtucket Country Club. This dam is part of the Ten Mile River Reservation and owned by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has been supporting this project and provided fish from the Nemasket River herring run in Middleboro to stock the upper Ten Mile River and help maintain the run. 

Save The Bay will continue to work on this project and advocate for continued river restoration. Water quality improvements are still desperately needed as the upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae. The flow in the Ten Mile River, like many of the Bay's small tributaries, is dominated by wastewater effluent. The Attleboro treatment plant is under strict new permit limits, but nutrient pollution in stormwater runoff and from birds and wildlife is still contaminating the river. Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts, including water quality and stream habitat. We can now begin a dialogue with Massachusetts about additional restoration opportunities over the border, and the work is just beginning!

Friday, June 26, 2015

"Big Fish of The Bay" Makes a Splash at the Exploration Center

By Matt Vieira, PR & Multimedia Coordinator

Thursday morning, we celebrated the grand opening and ribbon cutting of our brand new Big Fish of the Bay exhibit at our Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport.

Sen. Paiva Weed, Jonathan Stone, Pell Students
and Adam Kovarsky cut the ribbon on the new tank! 
Executive Director Jonathan Stone served as master of ceremonies and introduced Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who offered remarks on why this tank, and the Exploration Center and Aquarium in general, are so important for the communities it serves.

This brand-new exhibit offers the opportunity for us to showcase some of the larger marine life that inhabits Narragansett Bay. The 1,500-gallon tank, which increases the water capacity at our center by 40 percent, was unveiled with the help of third graders from Pell Elementary School, who were front and center for the unveiling. Our Aquarist Adam Kovarsky gave guests and students information about the new tank and the rest of the 
Exploration Center, which houses more than 40 species from Narragansett Bay.

Along with the grand opening of the new "mega-tank" (my own personal nickname for it) visitors also enjoyed the rest of what our aquarium has to offer. Guests came from right off Easton's Beach to pet our Dogfish Sharks, spot flounders in their specially designed tank and hold Sea Urchins in the palm of their hands. The Aquarium was buzzing with activity, all stemming from the unveiling of "Big Fish". 

Our Exploration Center and Aquarium takes pride in its local inhabitants. In fact, we have the only aquarium in Rhode Island that features the marine life of Narragansett Bay exclusively. This gives our visitors a close up look at what lurks right beyond the waves of their favorite Rhode Island beaches. We work tirelessly year round to foster environmental stewardship in those who inhabit the areas surrounding the Narragansett Bay and its watershed. 

To see this monster of a tank for yourself, visit our Exploration Center and Aquarium during our normal business hours, which this time of year is daily from 10 a.m. –4 p.m.. Admission is $8 per person with children 3 and under and Save The Bay "Family" members are free!   

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pollution, Interrupted

Persistence of the Baykeeper Pays Off

by Jonathan Stone, executive director

Good things don’t happen by accident. In the case of Rhode Island Recycled Metals (RIRM), hard work and persistence by Save The Bay’s BayKeeper finally paid off.

RIRM will no longer be crushing cars up against the shore of the Providence River at its 484 Allens Avenue scrapping site. The company will no longer be dragging piles of dirty, rusting scrap metal through the contaminated soils of its waterfront property. Contaminated mud produced by the company’s operations every time it rains will no longer be flowing, unabated, into our beautiful Bay. RIRM can no longer accept old, decrepit ships and let them sink to the bottom of the Bay. Nor can they drag those rusting heaps up over the unprotected shore to be cut apart, spilling their foul contents into the Bay. They are no longer allowed to process metals on this site, nor on their other unimproved and un-permitted facility at 278 Allens Avenue. For now, at least, the dirtiest scrap operation on the Bay has been ordered, by Superior Court, to cease most of the operations that have been polluting Narragansett Bay for more than five years. 

That’s because the Rhode Island attorney general’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) are finally cracking down on the polluter. But the truth is, the attorney general’s action against RIRM would not have happened had not Save The Bay’s BayKeeper and advocacy team diligently pursued the case for more than five years. The BayKeeper, charged with monitoring water quality and scouting for pollution, played a critical role in prompting legal action. 

Back in 2010, after observing oil spills on the Bay coming from RIRM scrapping operations, our BayKeeper first reported to RIDEM that RIRM was violating the Clean Water Act. RIDEM staff were unaware of the blatant violations of the law, including un-permitted car crushing and processing, lack of stormwater controls, modifications to the shoreline, in-water shipbreaking and expansion to another nearby Bay-front site without permits.

As RIDEM’s lack of staff and resources delayed enforcement and allowed violations to continue for years, our BayKeeper, Tom Kutcher, and staff environmental attorney Kendra Beaver, who joined us in 2014, relentlessly pressed RIDEM to enforce the Clean Water Act. Their determined and time-consuming efforts have included frequent emails to RIDEM staff documenting violations with descriptions, photographs, and videos from the water and land; written comments on permits; numerous file searches of RIDEM and Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) files to build the enforcement case; bringing RIDEM Enforcement staff to the shore side of the site by boat to observe violations firsthand; and petitioning RIDEM to conduct inspections of the sites at critical times. 

Tom also kept the press informed about the egregious pollution problems at the RIRM site to help spur RIDEM to take action. Interviews and reporter visits to the site by water resulted in numerous feature articles from several news outlets, including two front-page articles in the Providence Journal. 

During the brutal winter months this year, Tom was on the water, directing the US Coast Guard to an oil spill leaking from a RIRM vessel in the Providence River. His initiative resulted in legal action by the Coast Guard, bolstering the case being developed by RIDEM and the attorney general’s office. In fact, the BayKeeper’s work was highlighted in the findings of a recent House resolution calling upon the RIDEM to take action against this polluter. This case exemplifies the critical role our BayKeeper plays in our advocacy work.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Roads Less Traveled: Adapting to Coastal Changes

By Wenley Ferguson, Habitat Restoration Director

Just south of Conimicut Point in Warwick lie a dozen or more roads that end right into the Bay. The exact location of those road ends is getting harder and harder to determine as sea levels rise. During moon or storm tides, the Bay floods the roads and leaves seaweed as evidence of the height of the tide. While rising sea level makes these roads increasingly vulnerable to erosion and coastal flooding, these roads also pose a danger because they carry pollution from untreated stormwater directly into
Narragansett Bay. 

The changes to this coastline are nothing new—this stretch of Warwick shoreline along Conimicut
An end-of-road retrofit on Clark Rd. in Warren shows
a filtration strip being installed where pavement has
been removed.
Point has been eroding for decades. In some areas, the shoreline has retreated 50 to 200 feet since 1939, according to the Coastal Resources Management Council’s (CRMC) shoreline change maps. In fact, at high tide the water washes through the foundation of a home that used to sit on dry land, and there are no longer traces of a road that used to run along this shore. Past attempts to address the issues on this coast have mostly involved paving and repaving closer to the water’s edge, trying to stop the relentless onslaught of the lapping waves. But Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy worsened the erosion at many of these roads, again causing asphalt to crumble and litter the water’s edge. 

During the summer of 2014, to reduce the erosive effects of storms, Save The Bay teamed up with the City of Warwick to remove the low lying pavement at the ends of five roads along the Bay. Where pavement was pulled back, our team of volunteers, engineers and contractors installed rock-lined swales to slow and filter pollutants from road runoff, making the project a two-for-one: combat storm erosion and reduce polluted runoff at the same time. But on top of that, public access to the shoreline was enhanced at some sites with the creation of clear, less sodden paths to the shore. Residents from the Riverview Neighborhood Association joined the effort by planting native grasses to enhance the habitat and aesthetic value of these former dead ends. 

“This long stretch of quiet shore has suffered from an alternation of benign neglect and misguided paving projects for a long time,” said George Shuster, a Save The Bay board member and Riverview resident who helped with the plantings. “I hope these projects, which have been site-specific and flexible depending on the present and changing needs of each street, can serve as models for the many more road-ends in Warwick and beyond.” 
“We’re fortunate to have expert attention from Wenley Ferguson at Save The Bay, in partnership with forward-thinking engineers from Warwick’s public works department, working together on principled and thoughtful approaches to the city’s changing coast.” ~ George Shuster, Save The Bay board member, Riverview resident
Throughout Narragansett Bay, dozens of similar roads end at the Bay, providing public access to the shore and to coastal homes. But rapidly rising sea level threatens to flood and worsen the erosion of these roads, too. Along the Kickemuit River, we partnered with the towns of Warren and Bristol on two similar projects to pull back eroding pavement and install swales to slow down and filter the rain runoff. 

Sea level has risen more than ten inches since 1930 and is projected to rise at a faster pace over the next century, as much as three to five feet by 2100. As that happens, even more of our coastal infrastructure will become vulnerable to worsening flooding and erosion. These seven pavement removal projects, funded by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant and implemented in cooperative agreement with the CRMC, represent just one in a series of steps to adapt to quickly changing conditions. CRMC Policy Analyst Caitlin Chaffee, one of our key partners in this work, says, “They are a great on-the-ground example of how municipalities can start to address the effects of climate change on public infrastructure and how coastal communities can retreat and adapt rather than rebuild after coastal storms.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Seven area teens prepare to be among youngest swimmers in the 39th Annual Save The Bay Swim

by Cindy Sabato, director of communications

Pictured (left to right):  Sophia Caracuzzo, Santino
Depasquale, Ben Cassese, Caroline Cassese, Nathan Housberg,
Callie Hayes (not pictured: Emily Favreau)
Seven teenagers from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut are gearing up for the 39th annual Save The Bay Swim, a 1.7-nautical-mile open-water swim from Naval Station Newport on Coaster’s Harbor Island across the East Passage to Jamestown’s Potter Cove. For five of those teenagers, the Swim will be the first, and longest, open-water swim of their lives. Another finished the Swim last year with one of the fastest times among all 500 swimmers. And another is currently a leader in the Swim’s fund raising effort.

Santino Depasquale, 17, of Warren has been swimming all his life, is a lifeguard at his local YMCA, and is hoping to become a rescue swimmer in the U.S. Coast Guard, so he figures the Save The Bay Swim is right up his alley. His father told him about the Swim, and although this is the first long-distance, open-water swim for him, the Mt. Hope High School student is the fourth top fund raiser so far. “It’s pretty crazy swimming across the bay, but it’s a great cause. I’ve gotten a lot of support from people in my town and school who really like Save The Bay. My donations have come from people who want to support me and who want to help out the Bay and the community,” Depasquale said. To date, he has raised $2,175 of his $4,000 goal. Support Santino’s swim.

Caroline Cassese, of East Greenwich, who just turned 15 – the minimum age required to participate - on June 4, is the youngest swimmer registered for the Swim. Inspired to do the Swim by her brother Benjamin, Caroline has been swimming since she was about seven, but has never done an open-water swim or a swim of this distance. “Most people I’ve told about it think Save The Bay is a good cause and want to help. A lot of my friends know Save The Bay from summer camps and field trips with school,” she said. But her biggest inspiration was Benjamin, who swam last year. “When Ben came out of the water last year, I knew right away I would do it this year,” she said. Support Caroline’s swim.

Benjamin Cassese, 17, also of East Greenwich, is doing his second Save The Bay Swim this year in his continued effort to give back. “I did summer programs with Save The Bay when I was younger, and those experiences were a big part of my appreciation for the Bay,” he said. He says his donor support is “equal parts people wanting to support me and people wanting to support the efforts of Save The Bay.” In addition to his fund raising efforts, the freestyle swimmer has inspired a joint team of swimmers from Moses Brown and Lincoln schools – students, coaches, community members, and parents – to participate in the Swim this year. As the only repeat swimmer of this group, Benjamin says the biggest challenge is “not being able to see the bottom, or your hands, or where you’re going,” so he encourages his fellow swimmers to train for that. Support Benjamin’s swim.

That Moses Brown/Lincoln school team also includes Callie Hayes, 16, of Seekonk, Mass. An endurance swimmer on her school’s club swim team for many years, Hayes was introduced to the Swim and encouraged to sign up by her high school swim coach and advisor, Ruffin Powell, who is also a member of the team. “I’m excited about swimming open water for the first time and about supporting Save The Bay. I’m new to fund raising, but I’ve been talking with a cousin who ran the Boston Marathon about how to ask people for support,” Hayes said. She and Ruffin have been talking every morning about how to train for the open water swim. “You can’t see where you’re going, and that could be disorienting. I need to train for that in particular,” she said. Support Callie’s swim.

Emily Favreau, 16, of Manchester, N.H. will be swimming her second Save The Bay Swim this year. Last year, the Loomis Chaffee School (Conn.) student finished the Swim with the seventh-fastest school among women, and the 26th fastest score overall. But then again, she's been swimming competitively since she was five years old and completed a two-mile swim in St. Croix at age nine. Still, as a cheerleader for her grandfather, Mark Formica, who’s been doing the Save The Bay Swim since 1997, she couldn't wait to do her first swim across Narragansett Bay.  “Last year, when I found out I was going to be part of such a wonderful event, I was ecstatic. The hardest part was navigation, and I was worried that I might miss markers or sight poorly. This year, I'm excited for another chance to swim this event without any of the worries I had as a first-timer," she said. To this year's first-timers, she says, "Just have fun and enjoy your time in the water, and remember what you are really swimming for — you must swim the bay to save the bay."  Support Emily’s swim.

Sophia Caracuzzo, 16, of Warwick, is following in the footsteps (or swim lane) of her mother, who has completed the Save The Bay Swim for the past three years. As a year-round swim team swimmer, her longest swim has been one mile in the pool. “I’m a little nervous, but I think it will be much more exciting than a long pool swim, which can be boring,” she said. The Pilgrim High School student says she’s getting a lot of support from friends, family and coaches. “They think it’s insane that I’m swimming across the Bay, but they also know it’s going to a really good cause,” she said. Plus, she says, she wants to beat her mom’s time and prove to herself that she can do it. This summer, Caracuzzo is volunteering at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport this summer with a goal of studying marine biology in college. Support Sophia’s swim.

Nathan Housberg, 18, of Jamestown, has been cheering on his swimming friends from the shore for years and is excited to be doing the Swim himself for the first time this year. He doesn’t have a big swimming background, but after training for a 1.2-mile open-water swim as part of an Iron Man Triathlon for his senior project at The Wheeler School, he was hooked. Now a student at Brown University, he sails in upper Narragansett Bay frequently and says, “I see a lot of trash in and on the water up here in Edgewood. It’s a really important cause. I’ve been talking to a lot of sailors about how they can help out with water quality and keep the Bay safe for everyone.” As the only teen in the group who has done an open-water swim, Housberg advised the others to do pool drills for siting, because “you can’t see in the Bay like you can in the pool.”  Support Nathan’s swim.

The 39th annual Save The Bay Swim will be held on July 11, 2015. Five hundred swimmers and some 200 kayakers between the ages of 15 and 83+ annually participate in the 1.7-nautical-mile journey from Naval Station Newport on Coaster’s Harbor Island across open water to Jamestown’s Potter Cove. One of the most storied open-water swims in the United States, the Save The Bay Swim celebrates tremendous progress in cleaning up Narragansett Bay since its first official Swim in 1977 and the organization’s founding in 1970. In the early years of the Swim, swimmers often emerged from the water with oil and tar balls on their skin and swimsuits.

About Save The Bay: Founded in 1970, Save The Bay works to protect and improve Narragansett Bay and its watershed through advocacy, education, and restoration efforts. It envisions a fully swimmable, fishable, healthy Narragansett Bay, accessible to everyone and globally recognized as an environmental treasure. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Get Rid of R.I.'s Cesspools, Once and For All

By Topher Hamblett, Director of Advocacy

     What happens when you flush your toilet, use your shower or wash your dishes? In most of Rhode Island, sewage and wastewater from homes and businesses travel through pipes to a centralized
wastewater treatment plant. There, pollutants—bacteria, metals and excess nitrogen and phosphorus—are removed from that wastewater before it’s discharged into local rivers or Narragansett Bay. For many other Rhode Islanders, septic systems perform the same function, removing many pollutants and filtering the wastewater before sending it into the ground.
25,000 cesspools like this one continue to pollute
Rhode Island’s groundwater, drinking water and
Narragansett Bay.
     But, on an estimated 25,000 properties, sewage and wastewater is flushed into cesspools, which are nothing more than holes in the ground lined with rocks or bricks. They do not remove pollutants, nor do they treat wastewater in any way. In fact, cesspools offer a direct conduit for sewage to reach groundwater, drinking
water and Narragansett Bay and have been linked to the closures of iconic Rhode Island
swimming spots.
     Cesspools are so hazardous that they haven’t been allowed in new construction since the 1960s due to public health concerns. Current law also requires removal of any cesspools located within 200 feet of coastal or surface waters and drinking water supplies. However, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) estimates about 25,000 cesspools remain in Rhode Island.
     That’s where Save The Bay comes in. We’ve been advocating for the removal of the remaining cesspools once and for all. In February, Representative Teresa Tanzi (Narragansett) and Senator Susan Sosnowski (South Kingstown, Charlestown, Block Island) introduced legislation in the RI General Assembly that requires cesspools to be removed within one year of a property sale.
     Their Cesspool “Point of Sale” bills are supported by Save The Bay, The Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action RI and the Rhode Island Builders Association. As of this writing, the one organization working actively in opposition of the bill is the RI Association of Realtors, which claims that the cost of removing cesspools places an undue burden on a home seller or homebuyer. 
     Fortunately, the bill provides a hardship waiver for people who can demonstrate need, and low-interest loans for cesspool replacement are available through the RI Clean Water Finance Agency and RI Housing Authority. Residents in municipalities that have RIDEM approved Wastewater Management Plans—which is most communities in the state—qualify for these loans. RIDEM is working with the remaining towns to develop and adopt them.
     Save The Bay applauds Representative Tanzi and Senator Sosnowski for their leadership in the effort to finally rid Rhode Island of cesspools, once and for all. Cesspools are a threat to the water quality and ecological health of aquifers, coastal ponds, rivers and the Bay. And they impact places used for swimming, fishing, shellfishing, kayaking and other recreational activities that Rhode Islanders and our visitors love. Representative Tanzi and Senator Sosnowski are championing sound public policy that is good for Narragansett Bay, the health of all Rhode Islanders, and for the economy.