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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