The Most Toxic Towns in Rhode Island

Thursday, April 12, 2012


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Toxic waste sites may be concentrated in Rhode Island’s urban core, but they also appear in surprisingly significant numbers in some of the state’s sleepiest suburbs and rural retreats, a GoLocalProv review of state and federal data shows.


Much of the locally based pollution sources are old landfills, textile mills, industrial buildings, and other hazardous waste sites that were contaminated before modern environmental laws took effect, according to Eugenia Marks, Senior Director for Policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. (See below for the complete breakdown.)

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“The idea of putting everything into the [ground] and Mother Earth will take care of it is simply a myth,” Marks said.


The turning point for environmental regulation was four decades ago—in the early 1970s, when the landmark Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were passed, along with a slew of other environmental reforms. Rhode Island, along with the rest of the country, has come a long way since then, but it is still paying the price for the sins of the past, Marks said.

GoLocalProv examined five local sources of potential toxic pollution: hazardous waste sites, active and closed landfills; leaking underground storage tanks; businesses like incinerators and chemical manufacturing plants that produce toxic chemicals; and businesses that have a permit to release bacteria and toxic chemicals into waterways within certain limits. Data for each was culled from various databases maintained by the state DEM, the EPA, and other sources. (See below for more information.)

The Communities at the Top

The communities with the highest concentration of toxic pollution sources are also the most urbanized areas of the state. Central Falls found itself at the top of the list, followed by Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket. But there are notable exception of rural communities that neared the top of the list, including Warren and Middletown.

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The pattern of toxic sites disproportionately affects those with low incomes and minorities, according to Amelia Rose, director of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. She blamed historical practices of building workforce housing near industrial sites and zoning decisions that are swayed by the rich and influential.


It’s no coincidence, she said, that higher rates of diseases like diabetes and asthma are also concentrated in the same places.

“We know that health and environment go hand in hand,” Rose said. “That’s why it’s so important that protections be put in place so that every community can enjoy a healthy environment.”

But toxic sites aren’t concentrated in the cities only. Rose, a former state organizer for the Toxics Action Center, said toxic sites line some of the state’s water bodies, reflecting a historic use of water by textile mills. The mills may no longer be running, but businesses like wastewater treatment plants and boat yards to be closer to the water. And in Providence, the scrap metal businesses along Allens Avenue are one of the major potential sources of pollution in the city, according to environmental advocates.

Pollution Sites: What is the risk?

The toxic sites listed below pose varying risks to public health and the environment.

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Some, in theory, do not threaten public health or the environment—as long as the businesses producing the toxic chemicals follow proper procedures for treating their chemical waste and stick to caps on how much can be released into the environment. Others, like the Superfund sites, are already contaminated but have been or are in the process of being cleaned up. And leaking underground storage tanks are a perfectly solvable problem—as long as the state doesn’t run out of money to repair and upgrade them.


“We have a lot of risks in life and this is one of them,” Rose said. “It is something to be concerned about.”

But even if an accident occurs or a rule occurs at one of the toxic sites, the level of risk to the public can only be assessed by determining on a case by case basis how people would become exposed to the toxic chemicals, according to John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation at the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Just the presence of toxic substances doesn’t mean there’s a public health risk,” Torgan said.

Toxic Tanks to Lethal Landfills

Sources of toxic chemicals range from leaking underground storage tanks hidden from view to that eyesore of an old landfill. Below are the five categories of toxic sites reviewed in the GoLocalProv toxic towns ranking:

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Permitted water polluters: Approximately 300 businesses in Rhode Island are required by law to obtain a permit from the state Department of Environmental Management, agreeing to keep the amount of toxic chemicals they are releasing into the water under the limit—beyond which public health would be endangered. Contaminants that are regulated include the E. coli bacteria, radioactive materials like radon, asbestos, and mercury. The state’s pollution discharge management system is run in conjunction with the EPA, which maintains a national database of water dischargers. Businesses counted below are those had a permit at least within the last year. Permits that expired before 2011 and have not been renewed since are not included. Click here to search the database.


■ Businesses that produce or release toxic chemicals: These are businesses that are in the national Toxics Release Inventory, also maintained by the EPA. The database tracks businesses—which are required to report such things—that use, manufacture, treat, transport, or release 650 various toxic chemicals. The category is far broader than the water dischargers and includes potential pollution from air emissions, releases into the ground, and underground injections as well as surface water discharges. The inventory can be accessed online here.

■ Superfund sites: Since the 1970s, the word “Superfund” has become virtually synonymous with hazardous waste sites, although the term technically refers to sites that have been identified as serious enough to warrant the EPA getting involved to clean them up and find those responsible for the contamination. There are degrees of seriousness—the most toxic Superfund sites are on the National Priorities List. As of 2008, there were a dozen NPL Superfund sites in Rhode Island—within three miles of more than 115,000 residents, according to the Toxics Action Center. But the total number of all Superfund sites is currently just shy of 150. Click here to view the EPA database.

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 ■ Active and closed landfills: Beginning in the 1970s, the state began to modernize and centralize local waste management. The Central Landfill in Johnston was born. Today it is one of two active landfills in the state, the other being in Tiverton. However, there are 96 older landfills scattered throughout the state, according to the Toxics Action Center. This tally does not include local “transfer stations,” which pose a far less serious environmental hazard.


Leaking underground storage tanks: Known as LUSTs, these hidden dangers are most commonly associated with gas stations. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the country woke up the hazards of broken and poorly insulated tanks contaminating the surround environment. According to the last count by DEM, there were approximately 1,700 LUSTs in Rhode Island as of 2006. The state has a fund to help businesses repair or upgrade their tanks, but the review commission that reviews businesses applications has a $1 million backlog, according to Paul Beaudette, one of the members. The threat of contamination from an underground storage tank is very much a real one: in the early 2000s, a leaky tank at a gas station in Burrillville released toxic BTEs in the aquifer which served as the drinking water for residents. (BTE stands for benzene, toluene, and ethylbenzene compounds.)

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