PAWTUCKET — It's clear that the city and future generations will benefit from the clean-up of a 23-acre former industrial site located off Pleasant Street known as Tidewater. However, keeping local residents and school children safe during those remediation efforts has been the focus of state and local officials and concerned parents as preliminary plans are being drafted.
For the past 100 years, a manufactured gas plant and electric generation facility operated at the end of Merry and Tidewater Streets. The site, much of it owned by National Grid and some portions owned by the city, is now largely vacant with the exception of an active natural gas regulating station located on the western portion, and an electric substation on the central portion. In addition, sections of the former power plant are used as an active switching station. Because it borders the Seekonk River, city officials have eyed the future development potential of the property and eagerly await its clean-up.
Much of the site is boarded by residential properties, several companies, and schools, including the International Charter School, the Blackstone Academy, the Varieur Elementary School and the Max Read Athletic Field.
Prompted by a petition from the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island and some concerned parents of local school children, National Grid agreed to draft a Public Involvement Plan (PIP) in preparation for future clean-up actions at the Tidewater/National Grid site. Late last month, National Grid held a public meeting at the Varieur School to review this plan and get input about it before completing a final draft.
According to Holly Dygert, the mother of a student who attends the International Charter School, the push for greater public involvement in the site remediation stemmed from concerns from parents and residents over National Grid's removal of two gas storage tanks about two and a half years ago. Dygert said that foul smelling odors, which later turned out to be from some toxic chemicals in sludge inside the tanks, had been released into the air during this dismantling without any active warning to the public or the schools.
Dygert said that Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) was brought into the picture, and while the tanks are now gone, concerns remain about any future remediation work that takes place on the property. She said residents still worry about toxicity in the soil and want steps to be taken to adequately protect the neighborhood from potential dust and other airborne particles that would result from the earth being disturbed.
Residents petitioned for a PIP for the site in the spring 2012, and since then National Grid has conducted interviews with residents and parents, met with parents and members of the Environmental Justice League to discuss concerns, and established better communication methods to let residents know of work being done at the site. National Grid also agreed to have a benzene monitoring device on the site and to erect a fixed air monitoring station at the perimeter of the site that is closest to a row of houses.
At a meeting on Jan. 29 at the Varieur School, representatives of RIDEM, National Grid, and an engineering firm, GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., discussed the proposed PIP and solicited further input and comment from residents. About 20 or so residents attended the meeting, said Dygert, and many still had questions and concerns about the site and the clean-up work that is proposed.
We're just concerned,” said Dygert. “There were times I would pick up my daughter at school and the smell was terrible. You could just tell it was toxic. And you could see workers in hazmat suits on the tanks that were close by. We just want to make sure nothing like that happens again.” She added that RIDEM tested the air quality and did find levels of some known carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that had apparently been released during the tank removal.
Dygert added that RIDEM has told the group that no activity involved in the clean-up plans going forward would be as bad as what was involved in the dismantling of the gas storage tanks. However, she said she and other parents still worry about harmful toxins being uncovered in the soil or released into the air even during smaller remediation or any other projects done on the site. She said she particularly wants residents and local school principals to receive warning of remedial work that could affect the air quality, so people know to stay inside.
Margaret S. Kilpatrick, senior project manager for GZA, said the PIP is in the process of being finalized and is being revised based on some of the comments from the Jan. 29 public meeting. She described the PIP as the “blueprint on how the public can get information about the site.” The final draft will then go to RIDEM for approval. She added that another public meeting for residents is being planned for later next month (date and time to be announced.)
Among the enhanced communication efforts that National Grid has agreed to going forward is a mailing list to announce public meetings, distribute fact sheets and other reports to interested parties, maintaining informational bulletin boards about the clean-up work at the end of Tidewater Street and Bowles Court, and creating a “phone message alert system” during any excavation. In addition to maintaining publicly accessible websites, at RIDEM and at www.tidewatersite.com , information would also be made available at the Pawtucket Library.
At the meeting, members of the public requested that notifications, fact sheets and other information be provided in English, Spanish and Portuguese; a color-coded “alert system” be used to indicate when excavation is active at the site, and that a color-coded map of the site be developed that would show contaminants. National Grid agreed to these requests, as well as to inform school principals of the schedule or any work being done on the property so children can be kept inside.
National Grid representatives said that the site is fenced and locked to keep people off the property, and under normal conditions, the site is safe and there should be no worries about airborne contaminants. During times of excavation, such as a recent upgrade to the existing electrical substation, they agreed there could be a potential for airborne contaminants. However, representatives said that National Grid follows an air quality monitoring program that has been reviewed by RIDEM and is posted to the bulletin boards and at the Tidewater websites.