Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Battle That Started It All

By Topher Hamblett, Director of Advocacy & Kendra Beaver, Staff Attorney

As Save The Bay approaches our golden anniversary in 2020, we can’t help but celebrate some of the heroes that made us who we are today. One of those heroes is Louise Durfee, the fifth President of Save The Bay. 

Louise has a remarkable record of achievement that has led to dramatic improvements in Narragansett Bay. She has served as director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Tiverton Town Council president and council member, and chairperson of the Governor’s Sewage Task Force that examined the failure of the Fields Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in the 1970s. She negotiated the creation of the Narragansett Bay Commission and was one of the first female partners of a major law firm in Rhode Island. 

Louise Durfee, fifth president of Save The Bay.
Louise was a Tiverton Town Council member in 1970, when a small but powerful grassroots organization called Save Our Community formed in response to a proposal by Northeast Petroleum to build and operate an oil refinery in Tiverton, on the site of an oil tank farm. That organization became Save The Bay, and she was a key member. Sitting in her home, where the opposition to the refinery first met, Louise shared her reflections on Save The Bay’s first battle, the battle that began it all. 

“I would say that 90-95% of the people in town were in favor of the refinery when it was introduced. The proposers came in and invited the community and all the boards and commissions to free dinner and drinks. People flocked to the Stonebridge Inn. They showed this little video of the the refinery, and how this would lower our taxes. 

“It was here, in this dining room, where only about seven or eight people were saying, ‘What do we do with this?’ We formed a corporation; it was called Save Our Community. We got Jim Edwards, a litigator who threw himself into this, and he did nothing else for three or four months. There were zoning hearings. Jim treated it as a court case. There was no regulatory body in place. No CRMC, no DEM, no Clean Water Act. The social media, the web sites, these did not exist at that time. What we had was newsprint. The coverage by the newspapers was extraordinary.

“Every week, the local paper would have these huge headlines and it would champion the opposers [of the oil refinery]. Gradually, the townspeople began to say, ‘This may not be so good.’ And at the same time, the tank farm at the [proposed refinery] site had spills week after week, and after every single spill we’d call out the press and say, ‘This is what we can expect here!’ 

“We lined the first row of these public hearings with quahoggers, even though Mt. Hope Bay [which abuts northern Tiverton] was closed off to them. It was so amusing. The two lawyers representing Northeast Petroleum would call Jim Edwards and say, ‘Would you mind walking in with us? We’re so fearful of those quahoggers, we think we’re going to get beat up!’ 

“We established an office in the north end of town, with John Scanlon as our executive director. He was there a good part of the day. People came in and out, and there would be gossip and this and that. He was funny, I mean hilarious. He was a great guy. He became a focal point. 

“A guy named John Canulla was going all over the country, looking at refineries, getting reports and feeding them to the press. He was the first president of Save Our Community/Save The Bay.
“When it came to a vote before the Tiverton Town Council, their [Northeast Petroleum] proposal went down 4-3.”

Louise Durfee embodies the spirit of Save The Bay—determined, passionate, persistent, untiring. That was the spirit of the group that founded us back in 1970, and it’s been our spirit for all our 46 years. “It has been an amazing organization. It really has,” Louise said. “The staying power and the role it has taken on....is just extraordinary. It takes a long period of changing culture, and a new generation comes along. Same kind of movement, different technology today, but same work.” 
Louise also reminds us of the urgency of Save The Bay’s mission. “I think the Bay and its resources will always be a challenge. You have stormwater issues. I think we’re just in our infancy on stormwater. I see that as a major issue. It’s complex. We’re literally just beginning to deal with it. Mount Hope Bay, which I look at every day, still needs a tremendous amount of work. I think you’ve been on the right track on all the issues over the years. The education is important. The advocacy is important. There is still a great deal to be done.

“Save The Bay needs to continue its advocacy to make sure DEM and CRMC have the funds to do their jobs. If the regulators themselves are loathe to speak up for greater resources for fear of consequences, Save The Bay and others must carry the load. A weak DEM and CRMC do not serve the public. Enforcement of environmental laws, fairly applied, is a great educator for all of us and ensures that the State’s magnificent resources are preserved for all.”

Thanks to the strong foundation built by Louise and our founders, we look forward to the next 50 years of advocacy for Narragansett Bay.