As we near the end of 2019,The Hummel Report has new information on several investigations from this past year: from a widening investigation into a DEM staff cookout that landed two employees in hot water to the latest on road conditions following extensive utility line replacement on the East Side of Providence. And if you’re travelling to Green Airport, you’ll have to dodge the orange barrels….again. Jim Hummel has the details.
I’m Jim Hummel, before we close out 2019, we have new information on several investigations from this past year - beginning with our story about the Department of Environmental Management, one of its contractors and a cookout in September that landed two employees in hot water.
In late September, more than three dozen employees of the Department of Environmental Management gathered at the Parks and Recreation headquarters in North Kingstown for a staff appreciation cookout.
But the Hummel Report found out that an employee with the Parks and Rec staff had asked a vendor that has done extensive work with DEM to pick up the $1,500 tab for 40 people for the cookout - an apparent violation of the state’s ethics code.
The vendor - North-Eastern Tree Services. Inc. has been paid more than $1.5 million by DEM for its work over the past five years.
Immediately after learning of our findings, DEM Director Janet Coit ordered that North-Eastern be reimbursed: she and Parks and Rec Director Frank Floor wrote personal checks to cover the cost. Floor and another DEM employee were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
While both have since returned to work, we’ve learned a third DEM employee has been placed on - and remains on - administrative leave pending further investigation. Meanwhile, Coit ordered department employees to go through ethics refresher training. One session took place on Dec. 9 and another is planned for early 2020.
Earlier this month we reported on the unprecedented amount of utility line replacement on the East Side of Providence and complaints from residents about the road conditions. We found just last week that nearly all of those roads had been restored before the winter weather set in right after Thanksgiving.
It was rough going for much of 2019, as National Grid and Providence Water replaced miles of gas and water pipes throughout the East side.
Deep into the fall, many roads still looked like this. We raised the question of whether it was an acceptable conditions going into the winter. The city’s DPW director, after looking at video of three specific sites, deemed them inadequate. But Providence Water, which received the same video, moved quickly to shore up sagging patches.
A spokesman for the agency had provided us with a five-page status list of streets, pledging that the vast majority would be restored before the end of the year.
Earlier this month, we received an updated report: showing that 38 of 40 streets listed had, in fact, been done. The remaining two, and 44 others are due to be completed next spring, as previously scheduled.
The saga surrounding the owners of a Forster farm trying to get approval from Department of Health to sink a commercial well has turned into a legal proceeding - and we found documents recently that show the department refuses to budge in approving the well.
Jon Restivo and Aiden Mott, who own Legend’s Creek Farm, need a public water supply to expand their business, which includes a kitchen in a newly-constructed building on the property. The Department of Health, in a process that dragged on for months, denied the application, citing a decades-old junkyard next door, as a potential source of pollution if they were to drill a well.
The presence of the junkyard, it determined, was reason enough for the denial, even though te department had no proof of contamination. An engineer the owners hired gave a detailed analysis that he says shows the contamination would run away from the proposed well and not toward it.
The owners are appealing the decision but say the state has continued to drag its feet producing documents it has requested, forcing a hearing officer to intervene. It finally received emails it had requested pertaining to the case and took depositions of two top health department officials in September.
The emails show multiple state agencies contacting the Department of Health on their behalf. It also shows that the chief of the drinking water admitted she had not read the entire application before a decision was made, leaving details to another official who does not have a professional engineering license.
The two sides expect a hearing to finally take place in January or February.
Finally: if you travel to Green Airport the orange construction barrels are back. We had reported two years ago that the DOT had wrapped up a lengthy construction project on the Airport Connector. Well, it turns out: they weren’t totally finished.
Construction began again last summer.
And, we have learned the barrels will remain up throughout the winter. The DOT tells the Hummel Report it’s part of a larger project to replace three bridges in the city of Warwick that span Amtrak railroad lines.
A spokesman tells us that DOT is working with the contractor to make up time on the project, but construction is dependent on coordination with crews for overnight work when the trains are not running.
The DOT has no date for completion.
This year we marked 10 years of producing Investigative Report That Get Results, and will continue that into 2020. But we need your help. If you have a story idea or a tip that you’d like to pass along, email me directly - and confidentially - at Jim@HummelReport.org.