In January 1970, at the end of a five-hour town council meeting, a sole voice of opposition stood against an otherwise unanimous vote to renew a permit. The renewal, requested by the Northeast Petroleum Refinery, Inc. was the company’s first step toward building an oil refinery in Tiverton, R.I. The voice of opposition belonged to a new councilwoman, Louise Durfee.
By August of that same year, Northeast Petroleum Refining Inc. presented its proposal for an oil refinery along the northwestern coast of Tiverton and immediately launched a persuasive public relations campaign. The company hosted parties throughout the Sakonnet River area, distributing—what the opposition began calling—“those glossy brochures” that boasted a long list of benefits that would accompany the refinery’s construction: an increase in employment opportunities, a decrease in taxes, explosions in the housing and banking markets.
|This early model depicted Northeastern petroleum's proposed refinery plans.|
(Image credit: Herald Times, August 12, 1970)
However, the brochures neglected to address what Durfee and her acquaintances knew to be larger concerns: threats to air quality, the infamous crude oil stench, and, above all, a compromised local ecosystem.
Long before a simple Google search could retrieve these facts and statistics for curious residents, and without regulatory bodies like the Department of Environmental Management or Coastal Resources Management Council to monitor the proposal, Durfee and the rest of the opposition had to take extraordinary measures to inform Tiverton’s residents about the risks associated with Northeast Petroleum’s proposed project.
The day after the proposal went public, Durfee, who had once worked with an oil company in New York, John Canulla, a retired IRS officer who had traveled the country collecting and writing reports on oil refineries, John Scanlon, a public relations consultant, and others met in Durfee’s home to strategize.Their efforts resulted in the creation of Save Our Community, an organization with two simple goals. First, they endeavored to circulate a petition of the project. Second, they set about collecting donations to fund an objective investigation into the economic and environmental impacts of the Northeast Petroleum refinery. They wanted the community to know the information that wasn’t on “those glossy brochures.”
From September to November of the same year, Save Our Community held a series of public hearings and put their hired attorney, Jim Edwards, at the helm. Edwards worked tirelessly on the case for months and treated the hearings like a courtroom. He brought in biologists, ecologists and economists to address the lack of refinery safety precautions, the ability of the town to respond to a fire or spill, the inflation of Northeast Petroleum’s production and employment projections, and, of course, the irreversible impacts of the refinery on the local environment.
Support for the refinery began to plummet. In papers across the region, letters-to-the-editor and reader-submitted cartoons opposing the project flooded the weeklies’ pages. Canulla’s reports from spills around the nation ran alongside them, serving as cautionary tales, and United States Senators Claiborne Pell and John O. Pastore made statements against the project.
Finally, in a frighteningly close 4-3 vote, the Tiverton Town Council defeated the project by rejecting the zoning request presented by Northeast Petroleum in November 1970.
But this was just the beginning, and while members of Save Our Community celebrated a victory in their initial challenge to defeat the Tiverton refinery, they could not ignore the feeling that similar battles were on the horizon, not only in Tiverton, but across Rhode Island. The grassroots organization resituated itself to serve all of Narragansett Bay, changed its name to Save The Bay, appointed Scanlon as its first Executive Director. In later years, Durfee would serve as the organization’s fifth Board President.
While the locations of the battles, the nature of the threats, and the individuals involved may have changed over the years, many things remain the same. Those involved with Save The Bay remain tireless. They seek to inform and be informed. They recognize that the responsibility of protecting and improving a resource as great as Narragansett Bay is not one to be taken lightly. And they continue, though perhaps now in a more metaphorical sense, to track down the information missing from the “glossy brochure” and share it with all who will listen.