A Question of Enforcement
The water quality of the Providence River has improved dramatically over the past decade. But this week, Jim Hummel investigates questions about a scrap yard adjacent to the river cited repeatedly for storm water and hazardous waste violations. One environmental group wants to know: why isn't the state doing more to crack down?
Rhode Island Recycled Metals began operating on Allens Avenue nearly three years ago with one mission in mind: scrapping the Juliett 484 - known to most of us as The Russian sub, which was converted into a museum and for years berthed at Collier Point - until it sank in a 2009 storm.
Rhode Island Recycled Metals received permits from the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Department of Environmental Management to scrap the sub.
Stone: ``And then the activity changed. The activity became an on-the-shore recycling , car crushing and scrap operation in addition to the ship, the scrapping of the sub.''
That transformation caught the attention of Jonathan Stone, executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay. This video, taken by Save the Bay, shows the scrap operation from just offshore.
Stone: ``We never saw a permit request to transform that single, temporary operation into a year-round perpetual ship breaking operation.''
Hummel: ``And your contention is they need permitting to do that.''
Stone: ``They absolutely need permitting to do that.''
Months went by.
Finally, Stone wrote a sternly-worded letter to D.E.M. last fall, questioning the expanded use and what he says is a lack of enforcement by the state for storm water and hazardous materials violations documented in this file at D.E.M. headquarters.
Stone: ``A decision was made by the D.E.M. to, as required under the Clean Water Act, to issue a permit to the company - to conduct these operations - and the permit covers things like retaining and treating runoff from the site, so you don't have polluted water running into the Bay, which is very common in a scrap operation because there's a lot of dirty material.''
The D.E.M. file shows violations that continue uncorrected.
Stone: ``While the agency people at the CRMC were asserting that the company had permits, that was really a stretch of the truth. The company sought a permit for one narrowly-defined activity and then the permit was amended to the point where they were being allowed to do something completely different than what was originally proposed.''
In fact the company has been cited not only by D.E.M., but by the U.S. Coast Guard, which found an oil spill from the Russian sub after it was moved downriver to be dismantled. And Stone says the process has been less than transparent.
Stone: ``There's never been an opportunity for any public entity, Save The Bay, other agencies, other businesses along the waterfront to have an insight as into what's being asked of the company. It's never happened. And I think that's part of the flaw here, is that it should have happened.''
A Hummel Report review of the D.E.M. file shows inspectors visiting Rhode Island Recycled Metals almost once a month last summer and fall to see what kind of progress the company had made after D.E.M. issued notices of violation. Time after time inspectors found the company had not fixed the problems.
But the company continues to operate - and Stone says pollutants are still making their way into the Providence River.
Stone: ``I think the agency is in a difficult position, in a certain sense. And that is that the company itself sought permission to conduct an activity and based on what they asked permission for, it sounded reasonable that D.E.M. allow it to proceed. Suddenly and very quickly, when I mean suddenly, over a period of months, the operation changed very dramatically.''
D.E.M. declined our request for an on-camera interview - saying it is still investigating the issue, instead providing us a copy of a letter from Director Janet Coit to Save the Bay - basically saying...that it's still investigating. And the agency has given the company another month to formalize improvements of and corrections to its operation.
Hummel: ``If we look at that letter - if something had been done, if anything to get you off their back, they would said: `Well Mr. Stone, and Save the Bay, we've done this, this, this and this. That letter to me says, we're still talking to them.''
Stone: ``It's very explicit. That's exactly what the letter says.''
Stone says the state is allowing the company to put the cart before the horse.
Stone: ``The way I put it from the company's perspective is - if you want to open a bar or a liquor story, you don't open the liquor store and then seek permission. You get permission, and then you open the liquor store. Here we are almost three years later - two years since the complaint D.E.M. received, according to the director's letters - and there haven't been any enforcement provisions or actions that we're aware of.''
Rhode Island Recycled Metals General Manager Edward Sciaba Jr. in November sent D.E.M. a detailed list of improvements the company plans to make, nearly a year and a half after D.E.M. issued a Notice of Intent to Enforce for pollution discharge violations.
Sciaba tells the Hummel Report he is doing everything the state has asked him to and is waiting for the weather to break to implement additional pollution-containing measures.
Save the Bay says: less talk, more action.
Stone: ``When you find yourself, as D.E.M. does in this case, with an operation without the required permits, the enforcement problem becomes more challenging and their own credibility as an agency is undermined, I think, by virtue of having a moving target over what's going on, on the property.''
Hummel: ``Do they not have the powers to be able to go in there and say STOP?''
Stone: ``They have enforcement powers - that's their role is the enforce the law. The company has been violating the law, federal law, and the D.E.M. is empowered to enforce federal law in Rhode Island. We're not disputing the need for ship breaking. It is a valuable service if it is managed properly but the issue is if it's not managed properly you introduce pollutants into the Bay and in fact the U.S. Coast Guard has cited the company repeatedly for polluting the Bay from the debris and material that's onboard these vessels.''
Stone says the Narragansett Bay Commission's $350 million combined sewer overflow project, profiled by the Hummel Report last year, has dramatically improved water quality in the river and the Bay. His concern is that situations like these set those efforts back.
Stone: ``We've really arrived at a place where in many parts of the Bay we have a nice balance between industrial users, commercial users recreational users. We just don't want to see the clock turned back on that kind of progress.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.