Too Little Too Late
After years of having a metals recycling company violate orders from the state to keep contaminants from running into the Providence River, the Rhode Island Attorney General finally filed suit against the company last year. Why didn’t the state crack down sooner? Jim Hummel speaks with Save the Bay, which has monitored the situation for seven years and says the case could have been avoided. Plus: did former House Speaker Gordon Fox play a role in protecting the company?
Click here to view the Attorney General's lawsuit against RIRM.
Click here to view the 1/12/2012 email from Janet Coit.
Save the Bay’s Tom Kutcher spends a lot of time on the water. As the organization’s Baykeeper, one of his jobs is to identify and respond to environmental threats.
When he took the job four years ago, Rhode Island Recycled Metals on Allens Avenue was front and center on Kutcher’s radar screen.
Kutcher: ``They’ve been operating full-scale out of compliance for a long time.’’
And that, Kutcher says, has been bad news for the Providence River.
Kutcher: ``Not in compliance means that every time it rains everything washes through that scrap pile, picks up a bunch of pollution, washes off what was a contaminated site with a use restriction for PCBs, which is really carcinogenic, washes through that mud and out into the bay.’’
We first told you about Rhode Island Recycled Metals in early 2012, when the company had already ignored orders from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to correct storm water and hazardous material violations.
The state’s Coastal Resources Management Council granted the Massachusetts-based company a permit in 2009 with a focused mission: to scrap the Juliette 484 - a Russian Submarine that had been turned into a museum upriver, but sank during a storm two years earlier.
The operation quickly evolved - without permission - into an on-the-shore recycling, car crushing and scrap operation.
The DEM sent inspectors repeatedly to the facility, but the state’s bark wasn’t backed up with much bite.
So was the company getting protection - from either the governor’s office or the General Assembly? The Hummel Report has obtained a 2012 email from DEM Director Janet Coit saying she had gotten a call from then-Speaker Gordon Fox’s office about Rhode Island Recycled Metals, as well as three calls from its owner Edward Sciabba.
She asked for an internal meeting before getting together with Fox later that week. She noted…``a lot of care has gone into how we handle this to allow the business to maintain its operations, and to evaluate with care impacts on the quality of the bay.’’
Through a spokeswoman Coit tells us his week she does remember getting a call from someone in the Speaker’s office inquiring about the status of the company and asking that she meet with the owner. But, the director added, she never met with Fox or was pressured by him or his office about the case.
The meeting with the Speaker she referred to was to discuss upcoming legislation in that year’s session.
Kutcher: ``These guys are polluting, there are mechanisms in place to fine them. They’re supposed to have…water discharge permits, they’re supposed to have management in place. They have none of it in place. Fine ‘em. If you sped by the place on Allens Ave you’d get a ticket, right? But you can dump a bunch of pollution into the bay?
Kutcher took us on a tour late last fall for a view from the water.
The irony: after nearly seven years the company still had not removed the Russian Sub, the reason it was given permission to open. The sub has been partially dismantled, but remained firmly below the surface of the Providence River when we went out with Kutcher.
He said it’s particularly frustrating since the Narragansett Bay Commission is spending upwards of a billion dollars in three phases for a storm water containment system that has dramatically improved water quality in the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.
Ten months ago the attorney general’s office finally got involved, filing suit against the company. The case was assigned to Judge Michael Silverstein who issued several directives last year.
Kutcher: ``When the court ordered that they needed to remove the boats from the water, they constructed a new ramp, which looks like a three-boat wide boat ramp that slopes right into the water, right off the site, so anything now, every time it rains now it’s going…everything is going directly into the Bay. Since the court order.’’
Save the Bay’s Executive Director Jonathan Stone says the AG’s involvement was long overdue.
Stone: ``It highlights one of the challenges that DEM has had bringing adequate legal capacity to prosecute a known violator over many years in this pretty egregious case.’’
Hummel: ``And so when you say `AG’ it takes it to another level.’’
Stone: ``Yeah, AG takes this to another level and the AG brings resources that DEM doesn’t necessarily have.’’
The company did sign a consent decree with the state in 2013 to clean up the property, but Stone says it lacked a key component.
Stone: ``They did not put any milestones that the company had to meet along the way and as a result nothing happened at all, no improvements happened until the ultimate deadline of the consent decree and the company had no intention of doing anything. They would have identified that lack of desire to comply much earlier had they put some enforceable milestones in.’’
Last month the state filed a motion for a receiver to take over the company, saying this crane on a barge in the river was leaning over a submerged pipe that carries water across the river to East Providence. The company righted the barge the day before a hearing, and Silverstein continued arguments on whether to appoint a receiver.
But the court did allow an auction of equipment on the site, which has dramatically scaled back its operation. This is how it looked on New Year’s Eve.
Stone: ``Our frustration is that we’re still left with a very, very dirty site - it has not been remedied. Every time it rains there are all kinds of pollutants falling off the site, including PCBs into the harbor into the waterfront.’’
Stone says he is concerned the company does not have the resources to clean up its mess and simply will pick up and leave it behind.
And, he says, there’s a larger issue of how state government handles enforcement and Save the Bay recently wrote an open letter to Governor Raimondo asking, in part, for her to consider giving DEM and CRMC more resources in next year’s budget.
Stone: ``To bring a legal case and prosecute a scofflaw that’s not conforming to the rules and is not complying with a consent decree requires attorneys, it requires inspectors, and it requires political will at the top of the organization. And all of those have to come together to have an effective enforcement program.’’
Stone said he attended last year’s frigid inaugural address and heard something from Gov. Raimondo that struck a chord:
Stone: ``One of the phrases she used and she really meant was that to really resurrect Rhode Island’s economy, to attract jobs, to attract investment, create jobs, she spoke specifically about the need to create a fair and level playing field for the business community. If you’re a business and you want to invest you’re not going to invest unless you’re certain that you play by the rules and that all of your competitors play by the rules.’’
And, he offered his take on why developments in this case have been measured not in weeks and months, but rather years.
Stone: ``We know that when you’re constrained, you only have so many attorneys, you only have so many inspectors, you tend to sort of go immediately to those cases that can be resolved most expeditiously. Not necessarily those cases that involve the greatest threat to the environment - because you have limited resources and you want to work through the case backlog. So for companies that are found to be in violation and are willing to work with the agency, it’s easier for the agency to go to those companies, arrive at an agreement and move forward - it’s much more challenging to take a company to court. That’s where a lack of resources sort of plays into the hands of those companies that are basically thumbing their nose at the agency and saying okay, you know, I dare you, take us to court.’’
For Kutcher, it’s much simpler:
Hummel: ``What goes through your mind as you go by that place?’’
Kutcher: ``I’m aggravated, I’m frustrated. It’s frustrating, because it’s an easy case. It’s a no brainer.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.