Resurrection and Preservation: EcoRI News Roundup

Resurrection of Environmental Bills Held for Further Study in 2021

RI legislators returned to the General Assembly chambers in January, and environmental advocates are hoping to pass an ambitious agenda. The legislature is expected to consider several environmental and climate-related bills that fell by the wayside last session.

At the top of the list of legislative priorities is the reintroduction of the Renewable Energy Standards Act requiring energy providers to source 100 percent of electricity sold in RI from renewable energy by 2030. It passed the Senate last year with 30 votes, before stalling in a House committee.

State lawmakers are prepared to introduce at least three bills targeted at regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” The carcinogens are found in plastics, packaging, waste and water supplies. Researchers have linked these fluorinated chemicals to thyroid disease, low birth weight, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In 2019 the RI Department of Health officials found 48 percent of RI’s drinking-water sites tested positive for PFAS, with 24 percent containing elevated levels above the recommended standard. 

One of the big victories for environmental advocates in 2021 was the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund, which provides grant funding to municipalities and state agencies for adapting public infrastructure for climate-change impacts, preserving public access to the shoreline, and providing a match to help local municipalities acquire federal money. The law, however, was passed without any funding mechanism. Advocates say they will attempt to get OSCAR funded this year.

While specifics are still being worked out, bottle deposit bills are expected to make a return to the legislature after a brief absence. In 2020, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (D-South Kingstown), introduced a bill to place a 10-cent redemption rate on returned bottles. The measure was projected to divert some 15,000 tons of plastic containers annually from the Central Landfill in Johnson. Trade and business groups claimed the rate, higher than RI’s neighboring states, would cut into beverage sales and increase costs for rent, labor, energy and food.

Warwick Has Dwindling Green Space and Wants to Save it

The Warwick Land Trust Committee is proposing a bold initiative to protect what little remains of the city’s green space: a $15 million bond referendum on this year’s ballot to conserve nearly a dozen properties totaling some 500 acres.

During the past seven decades, the city’s open space has shrunk significantly. In the 1950s, most of southern and western Warwick was farmland and forestland. Today, apart from Morris Farm and the few farms left in the Potowomut area, the farmland has disappeared and the forestland has been fragmented, with much of it clear-cut.

The majority of the city’s remaining open space can be found in the hillside neighborhood of Cowesett and in the Natick area.

“The large areas of open space left are at risk of becoming solar fields or being developed into housing,” Land Trust Committee member Nathan Cornell said. “This is what is left, and we need to protect it for future generations and for the health of the community.”

If successful, he believes it would be the biggest conservation initiative in the city’s history. The bond figure of $15 million was derived from property assessments.

Battery Storage Facility Loses Charge

The company behind RI’s first utility-scale battery storage facility, a key component for renewable energy sources, has officially pulled the plug on the project.

Developer Plus Power, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in energy storage, proposed building a battery facility to store electricity generated from renewable energy sources. A spokesperson for the company confirmed that it has officially scrapped the proposed site in the village of West Kingston but declined to say why.

Town Council President Abel Collins expressed disappointment over the project’s cancellation. “I am supportive of large-scale battery storage installations, in addition to smaller-scale commercial and residential storage,” he said. “I would have liked to see it come to fruition.”

Project developers were planning on placing a series of 40-foot shipping containers on 7.4 acres of property near the train station. The containers would hold the inverters, transformers and batteries expected to store between 3.5 and 4.5 megawatts each, to total 140 megawatts of power.

The death of the battery project is a setback for renewable energy in the state. Utility-scale battery storage is a necessary component for transitioning to renewable energy. Green energy sources are limited by intermittency: the times when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow.

For more detail on these stories and the latest environmental news, visit ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI’s free weekly e-newsletter at ecoRI.org/subscribe.

The Birds & The Oysters: EcoRI News Roundup

From Superfund Site to Solar Farm

Nestled between Pontiac Avenue and the Pawtuxet River in Cranston, the Beacon Solar Project hosts 9,000 ground-mounted solar panels that can power 509 households. Subscribers to the community solar project are expected to save about 10 percent on their electric bills.

The 3.5-megawatt project is a joint venture between East Providence-based ISM Solar and Nautilus Solar Energy LLC of New Jersey.

The project represents a win for homeowners and solar developers alike. Solar construction is controversial, as residents often complain installations are eyesores, and environmentalists note the destruction of open space and forestland to site them. But the Pontiac Avenue array sits on top of an old landfill, a former Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site that is otherwise largely undevelopable.

A 2020 analysis funded by RI’s Office of Energy Resources showed a severe underuse of solar siting on already-developed sites. The report counted 404,594 solar-possible sites, such as rooftops, parking lots, landfills, brownfields, gravel pits, and other commercial or industrial parcels.

Preliminary data from the analysis showed RI could increase the megawatts generated by solar to 3,390 — 13 times higher than the 250 megawatts solar panels power now. Estimates in the analysis indicated using solar across the sites would displace 7.65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equaling 70 percent of the state’s current greenhouse-gas emissions.

Matunuck Oyster Bar Denied

A four-year tug-of-war between commercial aquaculture and some South Kingstown residents is nearly over. Members of a Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) subcommittee have recommended the council deny an application from Perry Raso, owner of the Matunuck Oyster Bar, to expand his Potter Pond oyster farm.

Raso originally applied in 2017 for 3 acres of additional oyster and bay scallop farming in the popular salt pond, claiming an increased demand for local shellfish. The application incited a flurry of complaints and action from neighbors.

The subcommittee’s Nov. 9 recommendation came down to the proposal’s impact on water-based activities. The subcommittee said the expansion would cut water-based activities by 23 percent, displacing them toward the center of the pond, an area where boats typically cluster, and increasing the risk of injury. Members also noted the proposed site would eliminate traditional shellfishing and fin fishing on the eastern edge of Segar Cove.

Raso owns nearly 10 acres south of Meadow Point, but, even with his request for additional acreage, only about 3 percent of the pond is used for aquaculture, which is below the maximum of 5 percent of a pond’s water surface area that CRMC allows for commercial aquaculture.

While the general sentiment across the state, including by many who use the same waters to play, is that aquaculture is good for the local economy and environment — oysters, like other bivalves, filter water and remove excess nutrients such as nitrogen; a small oyster farm can clean as much as 100 million gallons of water daily — resistance to oyster farming has become strong in recent years.

Shooting Birds for Likes and Follows

The increasing popularity of bird photography and the desire of photographers to showcase their images on social media is raising concerns that birds are being harassed and disturbed, leading to potentially harmful effects on their health.

Bird conservation organizations around the globe, from the National Audubon Society to Britain’s Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, are asking bird photographers to avoid getting too close and reminding the photographers of the codes of ethics that many wildlife photography organizations have established.

Local wildlife advocates have noted that it’s also an increasing problem in RI.

“It’s definitely a problem here, and it’s getting worse,” said one longtime birder who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “There are more photographers, and there are more forums that photographers can post their photos on. It’s an ego trip for them. They want to post their photos and get likes, and that leads them to harass the birds.”

Getting too close to wild birds can pose serious dangers to them. Birds see people as predators, and when people approach, the birds must stop feeding and instead exert extra energy they may not have to escape the area. They also may be forced to leave their nests unattended, making their eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation, thermal stress or trampling.

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

Unholy Lotus, Asphalt Woes, and De-Signed Trees: ecoRI News Roundup

Zoning Board Kicks Asphalt Operation to the Curb

Providence’s Zoning Board of Review unanimously denied a variance request Oct. 13 from a pavement manufacturing company that sought to continue the use of a leased portside Allens Avenue site for the storage and processing of concrete, stone, aggregate, and asphalt.

The Narragansett Improvement Co. applied for a variance permit last August to continue the non-waterfront dependent use of the 338 Allens Ave. property, which has been ongoing for the past three years despite lying within a maritime industrial waterfront district. The variance permit was opposed by more than 50 community members.

“This application doesn’t meet any of the standards, as far as I’m concerned, for a use variance,” board member Marcus Mitchell said. “It doesn’t comply with the ordinances or the comprehensive plan.”

Board members pointed to the three years of unsanctioned use of the site, the lack of zoning approval previously sought by the Narragansett Improvement Co., and the impact of asphalt processing on the health of nearby neighborhoods.

According to Robert Azar, deputy director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development, the city’s land-use plan and zoning codes prioritize the water-dependent nature of the port area to best capitalize on the deepwater channel. The Allens Avenue site, he said, was historically home to a dock extending into the Providence River, which suggests the site’s continued potential for waterfront use as zoned.

Outdoor Advertising Company “Erroneously” Removes Trees in Front of Its Billboard

A bank of trees on Providence city property in Washington Park alongside Interstate 95 was “erroneously” chopped down in September, according to city officials, triggering concerns about tree equity in an area lacking trees and the benefits they provide.

The highway buffer trees were removed from 1101 Eddy St., a 0.82-acre lot owned by the city and leased to Lamar Advertising Co., a Louisiana-based outdoor advertising company that operates billboards in the United States and Canada. The city has requested that Lamar Advertising, which subcontracted the bulldozing of the buffer, replant trees on the lot, which hosts a single billboard.

“The city of Providence had previously worked with the lessee of the lot to allow tree trimming for visibility purposes, but the tree removal that occurred went well beyond what was authorized,” said Faith Chadwick, deputy director of communications for the city.

Michael Murphy, general manager at Lamar Advertising’s Providence office, said the company was given verbal approval by the city forester to trim and remove invasive species on the property.

According to Murphy, a mix-up with the subcontractor hired to do the trimming resulted in the removal of nearly all vegetation on the embankment, which sits above I-95 and a spur of the Providence and Worcester Railroad.

“It was erroneous on our part,” he said. “It was a miscommunication.”

But for Linda Perri of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, the fiasco indicates bigger problems of tree equity in the city.

“You can’t just go chopping down trees in an environmentally precarious area,” she said, noting the lack of tree coverage in the community when compared to other areas of Providence, as well as the high rates of asthma and pollution in the neighborhoods bordering the Port of Providence.

Studies have shown urban trees can lead to better health outcomes and social cohesion, as well as reduce pollution, urban heat, and noise.

Cranston’s Unholy Battle with the Sacred Lotus

The serene tableau surrounding Cranston’s Meshanticut Pond belies an intense fight against the sacred lotus, which now covers much of the pond’s surface.

In the past seven years, after a Cranston resident planted it in memory of a relative, the lotus — an invasive species, endemic to Asia and relatively new to Rhode Island waterways — has overtaken the pond. 

According to Keith Gazaille, project manager with SOLitude Lake Management — a water quality and waterbody restoration company that works throughout the eastern United States — it’s not the only aquatic invasive crowding out native plants in the pond.

Gazaille has continued the fight against a trifecta of invasives plaguing Meshanticut Pond: variable watermilfoil, fanwort, and sacred lotus.

“The lotus and the other invasive plants have the ability to really outcompete a lot of the native plant species,” Gazaille said. “It really reduces the diversity of the habitat.”

There is legislation in the works to stop the sale of aquatic invasive species, but the reality on Meshanticut Pond and other Rhode Island waterbodies is invasives have already taken root. And the state can’t treat them all — it’s too expensive.

Cost varies based on the size, the weed type, the chemicals used, and the staff time needed. The 12-acre Meshanticut Pond alone cost $6,685 to treat — a price tag picked up by a federal grant program for habitat restoration.

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

Unbalanced Trees and Climate Change helps Archeologist: A roundup of environmental happenings from ecoRI News

An Unfair Tale of Two Tree Canopies

At the corner of John and Benefit streets on Providence’s East Side, the tree equity score — a measure that indicates whether there are enough trees in specific neighborhoods for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees provide — is a perfect 100.

Across the river, the blocks stretching from the Jewelry District to South Providence along Eddy Street score among the worst in the state at 63.

Areas with low tree canopy today often correlate to areas that were historically redlined or are home to large proportions of people of color.

Recent investments have advanced green infrastructure in some spaces, but not all investment is put in the places that need it most.

In early September, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management handed out 1,000 free trees. Within a week, all the trees had been claimed. But, according to Vrinda Mathur, an industrial design graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design and a Maharam Fellow with Social Enterprise Greenhouse, these trees may not be getting to the places that need them most.

She said this style of program presents “logistical or administrative” issues. The trees were available for pick up only, which can make it difficult for those without a car to take advantage of the program.

Alerting neighborhood groups or posting signs in community centers could help spread the word, she added, and get trees to the state’s most exposed urban areas.

Tree-planting programs must be “citizen-led,” Mathur said. Community members take on a years-long task of tree maintenance with limited immediate reward. This puts areas with a lot of renters — who may not care about multiyear investment — and low-income residents — who may not be able to spend time and money on such a project — at a disadvantage.

“I think the solution really isn’t just coming in and planting trees,” said Cassie Tharinger, executive director of the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program, a Providence-focused street-tree stewardship program. “There are real structural and material barriers. … What has to happen is shifting and tackling that.”

If you’d like to check out your neighborhood’s Tree Equity Score, visit https://www.treeequityscore.org/map/#10.5/41.8368/-71.4256

In Bizarre Twist, Climate-Fueled Storms Do Excavation Work for Archaeologists

Coastlines are used to steady change, slow cycles of erosion and revegetation. They have a “self-healing mechanism,” according to Tim Ives, the principal archaeologist with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. That mechanism stabilizes the shores and, as a result, keeps the region’s archaeological record safely buried.

But in late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy stripped away that protective layer and exposed the old coastal terrain. Artifacts dating back more than 4,000 years — from revolutionary-era French coins to rings of “fire-reddened” stone to quartz projectiles and chipping debris — were suddenly sitting in the open.

“I could literally walk and find piles of stone that someone had worked thousands of years ago,” Ives said. “When these coastal storms hit, they give us a timed opportunity to get in there and add more pages to the human story that we didn’t know had been written.”

On Block Island, Sandy was a game changer, according to Ives. Archaeologists identified 163 exposed deposits all around the island. Pressed for time and funding, the archaeologists tested 20 percent of the deposits and excavated nearly 600 test pits in locations scattered around New Shoreham.

“We didn’t realize that the entire coastline was basically one nonstop archaeological site, but it is,” Ives said.

Charlestown in Quandary Over Quarry

Frequent blasting and loud industrial trucks were just some of the complaints voiced by residents during a September Zoning Board of Review meeting about the proposed expansion of a quarry on Alton Carolina Road.

During a Sept. 7 special meeting, the Zoning Board of Review took public comment about the Route 91 operation. The business, Charlestown Farms LLC, was served with a violation notice in July when town officials found the quarry violated the local zoning code. The gravel company was engaged in sand washing and processing off-site material without the proper permits and had expanded its operations onto property not zoned for extractive activity, according to town officials.

An attorney for Charlestown Farms appealed the violation during a Sept. 1 special meeting of the Zoning Board of Review. At its most recent meeting, the board voted unanimously, 5-0, to reject the appeal.

Brenda Pater, a lifelong resident of Charlestown, recalled childhood memories when the gravel pit was a smaller, quieter mom-and-pop operation. But the blasting in recent years, she said, has gotten out of hand.

“I have to say I called the Town Hall for the first time in my life about three months ago because I thought we had an earthquake,” she told the board.

In its final decision the board found Charlestown Farms provided insufficient evidence for appeal.

For more on these stories, and to get the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

Are We Ready?: A roundup of environmental happenings from ecoRI News

An Unenforced Emissions Law Means Diesel Trucks Can Pollute at Will

Your personal vehicle has to undergo an emissions check every two years, but Rhode Island doesn’t inspect long-haul trucks and heavy-duty vehicles for emissions at all, in spite of a 21-year-old law mandating such checks.

In mid-July, 21 years ago, a law was passed to crack down on diesel emissions emanating from Rhode Island’s largest vehicles.

The amendment to the state’s General Law (§ 31-47.2) acknowledged that heavy-duty diesel vehicles contribute significantly to air pollution and diminished “the quality of life and health” of all Rhode Island residents.

“It is in the public interest to establish a program regulating exhaust emissions from heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses traveling within Rhode Island,” the law stated. It directed the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to tackle the issue and launch such a program by 2003.

As of this month, according to state officials, “the program has not yet commenced.”

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, heavy-duty diesel vehicles emit about 20% of all transportation emissions. These emissions include carbon dioxide and monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ultrafine particulate matter. All are associated with a host of environmental and public health impacts.

DMV spokesperson Paul Grimaldi said test methods are now expected to be defined by the end of this year with a program launch no later than 2023.

“Equipment has been ordered and software is currently under development by Opus Inspection,” said Grimaldi, chief of information and public relations with the Department of Revenue, which houses the DMV.

Mushrooms and Mosquitoes Won Summer

Rhode Island experienced the third-rainiest July on record, with most areas receiving more than twice the average monthly precipitation and some areas receiving much more. Local scientists said all that rain likely had an impact on wildlife and the environment, in both positive and negative ways.

In many neighborhoods, it was the mushrooms that were the most visible winners. Mushrooms of numerous species sprouted from lawns, gardens, forests, meadows and elsewhere in huge numbers. Mosquitoes also thrived in puddles and standing water.

Other wildlife didn’t fare nearly as well, however. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies were barely noticed in many areas for much of the month, though that doesn’t mean the insects were killed by the rain. Most were probably just in hiding. They are typically visible only during sunny days, and since July had few sunny days, most species did not make their presence known.

The abundant precipitation provided a significant boost to lawns and wild plants, but many cultivated plants, especially vegetables, struggled to survive. 

The biggest losers were beach-loving humans.

Providence Knowledge District Is Slow to Grasp Climate Reality

For more than a decade, political leaders have seen the overlapping Jewelry District and the I-195 Redevelopment District (aka the Knowledge District) as an area for economic renaissance and development.

The past three years have finally borne the fruits of these political efforts — with at least five multimillion-dollar developments built in these districts and two still under construction — thanks, in large part, to city and state tax incentives and subsidies.

Yet, as dollars are poured into developing the district, the ad hoc preparation for sea-level rise among the various buildings in the area begs the question: How prepared is this burgeoning economic and innovation district to deal with flooding?

Since 2015, the executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council has been pushing those building in the I-195 Redevelopment District to prepare for at least 3 feet of sea-level rise. But so far, not a regulation exists that requires property owners in the Jewelry District and I-195 Redevelopment District to do so. Instead, these decisions are left to architects and building-project managers. 

Peter Gill Case of Truth Box Inc. and Christine Malecki West of KITE Architects, both of whom have built or are building in the I-195 Redevelopment District, said their decisions to prepare for rising sea levels were not required in any building code, regulation or policy. 

And without these regulations, many of the buildings in the Jewelry District and the I-195 Redevelopment District are more vulnerable.

The Aloft Hotel, for example, which is under construction and sits within 600 feet of the Providence River, has a first floor at an elevation of just 6.5 feet, according to public records. The land on which the building sits will flood with just 5 feet of sea-level rise, according to the Coastal Resources Management Council’s STORMTOOLS. At high tide, 5 feet of sea-level rise overtakes the hotel’s first floor.

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI Newsfree weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

The Heat Is on in RI: A roundup of environmental happenings from ecoRI News

More Good Beach Days, In Spite of Rain

In the first decade of the 2000s, beach closures were trending in the wrong direction. In 2003, Rhode Island beaches were closed a staggering 503 times because high levels of bacteria, usually following a rainstorm, made them unsafe.

Three years later, in 2006, Rhode Island lost a combined 351 summer beach days. The most beach days lost to unsafe water quality since then was 2009’s 230. Last year, the Ocean State experienced 51 closure days. So far this year, five marine beaches — Goddard State Park Beach and Conimicut Point Beach in Warwick, Easton’s Beach on Newport, Third Beach in Middletown and Mackerel Cove Beach in Jamestown — have been closed to swimming for a total of 19 days during what so far has been a wet summer.

The closure of Rhode Island beaches is closely linked to precipitation — the more we get, the more stress on our coastal waters. 

Stormwater runoff from roads, parking lots, roofs and other impervious surfaces washes contamination, including bacteria and other pathogens, into the Ocean State’s salt waters. Wastewater overflows, made possible by heavy amounts of rain, also deliver contaminants, such as fecal coliforms, escherichia coli and enterococci, to beach waters.

Improvements to sewer systems, the addition of infrastructure that treats runoff before it reaches the bay or ocean, and the introduction of stormwater management projects at and around beaches have all played a big role in keeping beaches open and the waters cleaner.

R.I.’s Top Crop Is … Inedible

Rhode Island sod is integral to the state’s agricultural economy. RI-grown turf has been installed at Fenway Park, the White House and the 2004 Athens Olympics. Its 3,300 acres, mostly in South County, account for a substantial chunk of all sod grown in New England. The smallest state ranks 26th in the nation in sod production.

“Sod is the largest single commodity in the state. Its greatest asset, its greatest legacy, is that it has provided economic viability for farms that might have gone out of business,” said Michael Sullivan, former director of both the Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service.

However, much of the sod grown in Rhode Island is on some of the best agricultural soils in the state. And most of Rhode Island’s sod farms were growing potatoes in the 1950s.

This situation has some, such as Rick Enser, a retired ecologist who worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for nearly three decades, wondering if it would it make more sense for Rhode Island to grow food in the quality soil currently growing turf.

He told ecoRI News the people of Rhode Island “should be appalled that the best soils are not used to grow food, but lawn,” which, he said, has “a biodiversity value just north of an asphalt parking lot.”

But farmers, under pressure to hold onto their land and earn a living, have had to make an economic calculation.

“A good potato crop would bring $800 per acre, while sod yields $1,200 to $1,500 per acre,” he said. “Any businessperson will go where a better profit can be made, especially if they love the life of farming and are fighting to keep the land,” Sullivan said.

DEM Rejection Burns Proposed High-Heat Medical-Waste Facility in West Warwick

Environmental regulators denied a permit for a high-heat medical waste treatment facility following public outcry about potential health and environmental dangers, which led state lawmakers and the governor to take action effectively banning the process within Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) issued a decision July 13 denying an application by MedRecycler Inc. for a facility in West Warwick. The state agency said the ruling was prompted by the passage of a law placing strict and expansive geographic restrictions on medical waste disposal using a high-heat method called pyrolysis.

DEM noted the application’s failure to file specific information, including contingency plans with the West Warwick and East Greenwich fire departments, biological testing protocols and details of a required buffer zone between the facility and adjacent properties.

Gov. Dan McKee signed the law July 9 enacting limits on high-heat medical waste processing facilities in Rhode Island, which DEM cited as influential in its decision to deny MedRecycler’s application.

MedRecycler CEO Nicholas Campanella, who is also chairman of New Jersey-based parent company Sun Pacific Holding Corp., issued a statement following the DEM ruling, saying, in part, “The company will consider all of its legal options, of which there are many.”

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

Improvements All Around: A roundup of environmental happenings from ecoRI News

Shellfishing in the Providence River? Sure!

Years of work and millions of dollars in investment are paying off for the Providence River, and with it, fishing and shellfishing opportunities have increased.

This spring, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) opened the lower third of the Providence River to quahogging on a conditional basis for the first time in more than 75 years. And experts say the river is clean enough to fish, too.

“This is a tremendous day for Rhode Island that many never thought possible,” DEM Director Janet Coit said in a statement. “The opening of these new shellfishing grounds is the result of water quality improvements from decades of intense efforts to clean up the Providence River and Narragansett Bay.”

The Biggest Project You’ll Never See

A June 18 groundbreaking ceremony hosted by the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) marked the opening of the final phase in the largest public works project ever undertaken in Rhode Island, and likely the project’s last public appearance for some time as the work to benefit the surface estuary heads underground.

The third stage of the combined sewer overflow (CSO) project, known as “RestoredWaters RI,” is expected to raise the water quality in Narragansett Bay and its watershed and subsequently improve health and environmental conditions.

NBC operates Rhode Island’s two largest wastewater treatment facilities, Fields Point in Providence and Bucklin Point in East Providence. The new CSO tunnel beginning in Pawtucket will run 2.2 miles and provide a 65-million-gallon capacity to contain water and wastewater resulting from foul weather overflows until the liquid can be processed.

The eventual completion of the phase-three tunnel will be followed by construction of a park to benefit residents of East Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket with bike paths, estuary overlooks and recreational and educational areas.

Providence’s $140M Facelift

The Imagine Downtown Providence project, headed by global design consultant Arup, brought forward a proposal to redesign Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park and the Riverwalk. From added lighting and bathrooms to new performance stages and water features, the proposal would reshape downtown from the ground up.

In development since last December, the project took into consideration thousands of survey responses and public comments to develop a full-scale reconfiguration of the space.

In one of the biggest changes, Washington Street would be closed off to traffic and incorporated into the expanded plaza, according to Alban Bassuet, associate principal with project lead Arup. This would create a larger space with more “opportunity for public engagement and to revitalize the area,” he said.

The Providence Rink would transition into a versatile multiuse area, with a paintable floor mural, skating obstacles, places to eat and drink and audio-visual installations ready for events of up to 2,000 people, according to Bassuet. A new rink, designed to imitate skating on a frozen river, would be built on top of the current Washington Street.

Throughout the changes, bus travel will remain the focal point of the Kennedy Plaza area, according to Bonnie Nickerson, director of Providence’s Department of Planning and Development. 

However, Nickerson said the design team will remain in direct contact with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and keep bus accessibility options scalable in light of another proposed breakup of the Kennedy Plaza central bus hub. The state’s Multi-Hub Bus System has faced public backlash because of its potential to lengthen transfer times and scatter bus access across downtown.

“One of the things that we tried to do with our plan … is to identify spaces that could be scalable up for the level of bus activity that ultimately ends up in the greater [Kennedy Plaza] area,” Nickerson said.

Backyard Gardeners Work to Create an Interstate Pollinator ‘Highway’

Rhode Island gardeners in Cranston and Barrington are joining a national effort to install native plants in their gardens. The idea behind the effort is to link their yards with native habitat on protected lands and create what organizers are calling “pollinator pathways” to boost populations of bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.

In the Edgewood section of Cranston, Suzanne Borstein is leading the effort to get her neighbors and friends to plant native plants in what she calls the “tree lawn” — the area between the sidewalk and the road. Since last November, she has hosted a series of online meetings to discuss the initiative, and nearly three dozen Cranston households had agreed to participate by the beginning of May, with more signing on every week.

“The connectability of the garden spaces is what’s especially important,” Borstein said. “If you have a great yard but nobody else in the neighborhood does, then the pollinators won’t be attracted or sustained.”

Planting native plants and restoring native habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity, according to the National Audubon Society. The habitat created by native plant gardens helps to nurture and sustain insects, birds and other creatures. The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society has many resources for adding native plants to your garden.

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit www.ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at www.ecoRI.org/subscribe.

Summer Plans and Environmental Issues Collide: A roundup of environmental happenings from ecoRI News

Bridge Repairs Push Bikers Into Roadways 

Residents across Rhode Island’s East Bay are reeling over the extended closure of two East Bay Bike Path bridges, which many say signifies a loss of recreational opportunities, a blow to local business and a shift in the social fabric of their communities.

More than 70 community members attended an online public presentation May 6 by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Barrington and Warren town councils to discuss temporary fixes to East Bay Bike Path bridge closures that have forced cyclists onto busy motor vehicle bridges for the past year and a half.

“What we have now is really playing with fire,” said Ron Pitt, a Barrington resident. “Although we haven’t had a serious accident yet, the potential is there.”

After inspections revealed faulty foundations of the two bridges near the convergence of the Barrington and Palmer rivers, bike traffic was rerouted onto County Road bridge walkways already crowded with fishermen and pedestrians. 

Robert Rocchio, RIDOT’s chief engineer of infrastructure, recognized the need to improve the temporary reroutes. Updates, which he said will cost about $2 million, will be in place for a minimum of two years as the state attempts to source the $25 million needed to reconstruct the two 130-year-old bridges.

Members of both the Barrington and Warren town councils gave the temporary plan a hesitant go-ahead, seeing it as the only viable solution in the short term. But many pushed back when Rocchio suggested RIDOT could make these reroutes permanent to avoid an expensive bridge reconstruction project.

Westerly Flooded, and Not with Tourists

The Napatree Point access route and Larkin Square in Watch Hill are on the verge of inundation. The water level is mere inches below the adjacent concrete on a calm day. During high and king tides, waves easily breech the seawall near the Watch Hill Yacht Club, submerging parts of the parking lot and blocking the access point to a popular conservation area.

In 2019 alone, Napatree Point access was flooded and became impassable on 121 days.

This continued nuisance flooding has prompted officials in this coastal village to monitor rising waters and gather evidence and community support before embarking on ambitious stopgap measures to mitigate further damage and buy time.

Hoping to prevent catastrophe until they can devise a more permanent solution, the Watch Hill Fire District and the Watch Hill Conservancy were awarded a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Climate Resilience Fund to elevate and fortify the Napatree Point access route. The plan is to raise the elevation of the entrance using all-natural materials, including stone and sand, that will create a buffer against heavy wave action.

Multiple businesses already have elevated to protect themselves from nuisance flooding and sea-level rise, including the Watch Hill Yacht Club and the Lanphear Livery. The Livery was rehabilitated, restored and elevated 2 feet in 2016. The Watch Hill Yacht Club was also raised about 2 feet.

Georgia Jones has seen water engulf parking spots and creep up to the sidewalk in front of her family’s century-old business, the Olympia Tea Room restaurant on Bay Street. Lost parking means lost business for the whole community, she said, so they’ll have to do more than sandbag the front door to protect their livelihoods.

“Our plan for the future will be to lift the building up, but meeting the extensive criteria will be difficult. It’s our only option,” Jones said. “We are staring at the ocean, and the front door is approximately 7 feet above mean sea level, so we can’t put this on the back burner.”

Short-term fixes, such as reinforcing and rebuilding the seawall or moving businesses to the second floor, will buy time, but longer-term solutions are more challenging.

The Microscopic Organism that Could Ruin Your Stuffies

Stuffie season is upon us, and scientists at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography are learning more about a microscopic organism that, despite its tiny size, can have a major impact, closing shellfisheries and making people sick.

Pseudo-nitzschia, an organism that produces the toxin domoic acid, the source of shellfish poisoning, was first documented in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1987. The same toxin has caused problems in Rhode Island, prompting extensive shellfish closures in Narragansett Bay in 2016 and 2017.

URI researchers know that Pseudo-nitzschia is not new to Narragansett Bay and that it hasn’t always produced toxins. Water temperature didn’t appear to influence toxin production, but there is a relationship between toxin production and nitrates. Toxin production appears to increase when nitrate levels are lower.

It Came from the Pond: Invasive plants, drugs and poop — protecting the water is no easy task

Invasion of the Sacred Lotus

When a Cranston resident planted a sacred lotus in the pond at Meshanticut State Park in memory of a family member in 2014, she didn’t realize the plant was an aggressive invasive species. The lotus, which features enormous floating leaves that shade out native plants, quickly took over a large area of the Rhode Island pond.

Five years later, 75 volunteers spent 12 hours cutting it back, but they eradicated just 10% of the ever-expanding plant, which today covers 1.83 acres of the 12-acre pond.

More than 100 lakes and 27 river segments in Rhode Island are plagued with at least one species of invasive plant. These plants pose threats to healthy ecosystems, reduce recreational opportunities and negatively impact the economy.

In response, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has renewed its effort to combat aquatic invasive species by proposing regulations to ban their sale, purchase, importation and distribution in the state. Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast that has yet to regulate the sale of these plants.

Making the Great Salt Pond Great Again

Block Island’s only estuary, the Great Salt Pond, is among the most popular harbors on the East Coast. But as recently as three-plus decades ago, the 673-acre tidal pond was more open toilet than prized natural resource.

Sven Risom, 62, recalled swimming in the pond as a kid and his hand brushing against something he knew wasn’t a Baby Ruth.

Up until the late 1980s, boaters routinely pumped out their wastewater directly into the pond. Besides making swimming a health risk, life in and around the popular pond suffered.

The Committee for the Great Salt Pond, founded in 1986, has been instrumental in improving the water quality of the pond. The group began by offering a pump-out service to boaters. The town continues this free program today with five pumpout boats. The sewage is offloaded to the municipal sewer system.

Keeping the pond protected means balancing its multiple uses, not an easy task, as the pond is a magnet for tourists, boaters, anglers, paddlers, business opportunities and development pressures.

Proposed Medical Waste-to-Energy Facility’s (Chemo) Drug Problem

Jim Mullowney, a University of Massachusetts-educated environmental chemist with three decades of experience, has spent the past 13 years addressing the dangers posed by trace amounts of chemotherapy drugs. His concern at the moment is focused on stopping a waste-to-energy facility proposed for Rhode Island that would process medical waste.

The Newport resident said the facility, planned for an office park on the border of West Warwick and East Greenwich, won’t be able to safely treat chemotherapy drugs present in the medical waste it plans to distill.

While the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act prohibits chemotherapy drugs from being disposed of in high-heat facilities like the one proposed for West Warwick, Mullowney noted that trace chemo, containing less than 3%, isn’t addressed in the federal law.

He noted that because of increased regulations protecting people from the dangers of these drugs, the fastest-growing segment of the medical waste disposal industry is “trace chemotherapy waste.” He believes it will be a major feedstock for this proposed facility.

MedRecycler-RI intends to dispose of up to 70 tons of medical waste daily through an energy-intensive heating process known as pyrolysis. Mullowney, who founded a company to address the issue of secondhand chemo, said he looked into pyrolysis 10 years ago as a possible disposal option for waste, medical and human, that contains chemotherapy drugs.

He said the pyrolysis process doesn’t eliminate any of the hazards associated with chemotherapy drugs, which can cause birth defects, miscarriages, and, ironically, cancer.

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Might as Well Jump: Frogs awaken, New England braces for electric cars and know-a-guy politics reigns

Wood Frogs Thaw Out Then Get Busy

In southern New England, wood frogs are among the first species to emerge from winter hibernation, typically in mid to late March. 

Wood frogs produce a natural antifreeze that allows them to freeze almost completely solid in winter. Unique among frogs in the Northeast, the wood frog’s antifreeze is a chemical reaction between stored urine and glucose, which protects a frog’s cells and organs from freezing while allowing the rest of its body to freeze.

Once spring comes, the frogs thaw out and their hearts start beating again. As soon as they awaken, they hop to their breeding pools to seek a mate on the first night it rains.

Wood frogs are often joined by spring peepers and spotted salamanders in migrating to their breeding pools during rainy nights in March, but it’s the frogs that often experience the highest mortality rate as they are hit by cars while they cross roadways to get to breeding pools.

Road mortality for these amphibians can be as high as 100% in some areas when traffic is high during the one night of the season that most migration takes place.

Grid Braces for More Electric Cars

There’s little doubt that electric vehicles (EVs) will soon be running the roads. Automakers such as Ford, General Motors and Volvo have committed to larger electric fleets. States are adopting sales targets for zero-emission vehicles and introducing bills that follow California’s ban on new gas-powered cars in 2035.

The shift will increase demand for electricity just as the grid will be changing from centralized power to distributed smaller sources of renewable energy such as solar farms, offshore wind and even hydropower from Canada.

But is our local grid ready for all those EVs to plug in to power up? 

For now, ISO New England, the manager of the regional power grid, projects there will be adequate capacity and reliability until 2030, as the electricity needed for EV growth is offset by energy-efficiency advancements and more solar power. But after 2030, when electrification must ramp up, is the gray area.

National Grid is installing 278 fast-charging ports across Rhode Island. The multinational utility is also conducting a three-year study, called SmartCharge Rhode Island, of hundreds of current EV owners to understand charging habits and determine if incentives can prompt EV owners to help manage the grid by charging during off-peak hours.

This strategy includes the use of battery storage and getting drivers to establish new habits such as charging at home when demand for power is low. So far, the pilot programs in Rhode Island and other states have shown that pricing incentives for charging during off-peak hours are working.

National Grid and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation are also testing the concept of battery storage to supplant power from the grid during peak hours with a charging station plus battery-storage systems at park-and-ride lots in Warwick and Hopkinton.

Progressives Say PUC Appointment Smacks of Know-a-Guy Politics

Former senator John C. Revens Jr. will be joining the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC), but his approval came with a reminder of the State House’s ugly history of patronage and insider politics. 

Vocal support for Revens’ nomination came from long-tenured members of the Senate who severed with the Warwick democrat who left office in 2008.

Nine progressive senators, however, opposed Revens during a March 9 vote by the full Senate. Twenty-nine senators confirmed Revens to a six-year term on the PUC.

Freshman Sen. Kendra Anderson, D-Warwick, noted that serving on the PUC requires a knowledge of utilities policy and an appreciation for the urgency of addressing the energy transformation the state is facing in the next six years.

“Here’s the problem: Senator Revens has no experience in energy science, environmental economics or environmental justice,” Anderson said.

Revens has been a private-practice attorney for the past 20 years. He previously owned a liquor store and was a real-estate developer.

Revens’ nomination was opposed by Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, among others.

According to the PUC, no date has been announced for Revens’ first day on the job. The position comes with a $139,000 annual salary. He was nominated to the three-member commission by then-Governor Gina Raimondo.

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